Bird Progressions

by Kermit Lynch, November 2000

I have been working on a piece trying to explain (so far without success) Richard Olney. He was my friend and, in a casual sort of way, my mentor, and I liked his attitude about food and wine. Richard died last year, and I think about him a lot.

To mention Richard here, where the subject is Thanksgiving, does not seem thoroughly appropriate. I can see him loving the event, the reunion of his large family, enjoying the progression of wines that a long meal and lots of people would occasion, but when the huge stuffed bird is placed on the table, I can see Richard wince. There were two American favorites that Richard really could not stomach: turkey was one, and he hated watermelon. So I think of Richard in this context not as he might relate to a turkey, but because of his genius for wine progressions. To put it simply: dry to sweet, light to weighty, simple to complex, young to old.

Thanksgiving provides us an opportunity to riff on his theme, because there are a good number of glasses to fill and refill, several courses that need accompaniment, and, because almost all wines go with Thanksgiving fare, we can get into some nifty improvisations.

After studying our current inventory, I composed four wine menus to serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare. Those of you with wine cellars might, of course, prefer to dig out some older treasures.

“The genius of Champagne seems to me best expressed at the apéritif hour,” Richard wrote in Ten Vineyard Lunches. And, “as long as the Champagne glasses are kept filled, no one minds lingering before going to table.”

Champagne or other sparkling wines are a festive way to open holiday ceremonies. Spirits brighten, tongues loosen, stomachs start to growl.

As you will notice, I like themes and variations. Also, I find that Alsatian wine is in the right spirit for this holiday. Beaujolais, too. Both, in their perfumes, contain memories of the past harvest’s bounty, which is what we are giving thanks for, right?

With several bottles needed, it is the opportunity to open your white wine service with, for example, a drier, simpler Riesling or Gewurztraminer and move to a finer, more complex and expansive wine from the same grape variety.

Menu three riffs on a Chardonnay theme, working south from Lassalle’s Blanc de Blancs to Bernard Raveneau’s white Burgundy from Vézelay to Roulot’s richer, deeper Bourgogne blanc. Or you could draw from your cellar a 1988 Raveneau Chablis and follow it with a 1982 Meursault from François Jobard, or something like that. It is fun to mull over the possibilities (it involves defining the character of the wines you are considering) and fun to enjoy the results of your decisions later at table.

Notice that two of the menus include reds from Beaujolais and lead to red Burgundy. I love that progression from a flashy, fruity, youthful red to something older and nobler. Gamay and Pinot Noir are good choices for Thanksgiving. They shine.

The flavors of reds from Chinon and Bourgueil (menu three) seem to bring out the wild fowl/Pilgrim origins of the holiday bird. It would also work to open the reds with a Chinon or Bourgueil and follow with an older Saint-Émilion, which usually has Cabernet Franc in its blend. If you have a Joguet Chinon from the 1970s or ’80s, follow it with a Saint-Émilion from the ’60s or ’70s. Nice.

Menu four is for Rhône addicts, but the Champagne is for getting your mouth wet. First things first. Then you have a white from the far south, hopefully with some Marsanne in it, like Trignon’s Cuvée Célestine or Alquier’s Marsanne/Roussanne blend, then you head north for the Rhône’s greatest white, Chave’s Hermitage blanc, which you will have to provide, because we have none left in stock. The 1989 and 1983 are doing well, for example. As for the reds, the Châteauneuf follows the Côtes du Rhône Villages beautifully. Hierarchy, man! French wines have hierarchy, and if you know how to use it, you can orchestrate a symphonic progression.

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