Thanksgiving fare is always difficult to complement with wine. The broad range of flavors, from turkey to cranberry sauce to mincemeat pie, defies harmonious accompaniment with one or even two wines. Some people choose beaujolais for Thanksgiving because of its lively, indiscriminate fruit, or a gewurztraminer with spicy power equal to most warring gastronomy. This year you might try serving whatever you find lying in your cellar, knowing that almost any wine will go with some aspect of the meal, and concentrate your enological acumen on dessert.
The classic French dessert wine is sauternes. (Wines without the "s" on the end are made elsewhere, and bear little resemblance to the real thing.) True sauternes is an intense elixir that will match any extravagance of fruit and sugar a chef cadevise. Elegant, rich, nectarlike, it provides the perfect conclusion to a long and festive meal at which, once a year, the strictures of calories and cholesterol are forgotten.
Sauternes -- and neighboring Barsac, which produces similar wines -- are individual appellations in southern Bordeaux, on a tributary of the Gironde. Morning mists rising from the water in the autumn encourage the growth of a mold on the sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes, known as botrytis cinerea ("the noble rot"). The afflicted grapes are unappetizing to look at, but wonderfully sweet. The mold attacks the skins and causes the sugar to become concentrated by allowing evaporation of some of the juice. Harvest requires many pickings of individual bunches and often of individual grapes, since they do not all rot nobly at once. Good sauternes vintages don't necessarily correspond with those of other Bordeaux wines, since the presence of botrytis is so important.
The method, oddly enough, is not French, but German. The acly trockenbeerenauslese of the Rhine is also a result of botrytis. It was a German who brought the sweet-wine method to Sauternes in the 1830s and experimented at Ch.ateau La Tour Blanche. Sauternes had until then produced only dry white wines. Today the best sauternes is fermented in small, new oak barrels until the alcohol reaches about 14 percent, with about 12 percent of the wine being sugar. It is then aged in wood for as much as three years before being released. It needs a lot more age to reveal depth and mellowness. Sauternes becomes darker in the bottle and acquires a honeyed, sometimes nutty intensity that is far more subtle than the sweetness that overlies it.
Sauternes can be quite expensive, particularly if you demand Ch.ateau d'Yquem, the most famous. Exquisitely made, it is easily capable of living half a century in the bottle and is one of the world's rarest wines. (D'Yquem is the only premier grand crus sauternes.) However, there are much less costly first- that are very good value, particularly in today's market.
Some of the better producers available here are Ch.ateau Guiraud, Ch.ateau Rayne-Vigneau, Ch.ateau Rieussec and Ch.ateau Suduiraut. A lighter, softer style of sauternes is that of Ch.ateau La Tour Blanche. The '76, a good vintage, is ready to drink now and costs about $11 a bottle. (Remember, a little sauternes goes a long way.)
A more complex style comes from Ch.ateau Doisy-Daene, a second growth. The '76 Doisy-Daene is warm and mellow, and won't easily be forgotten by those thankful gourmands sipping it for the first time.