In this strange and disquieting year, Thanksgiving planning begins with the question of whether to have any sort of gathering at all. Which wines to drink with the meal will be the least of your worries.
That's as it should be. Selecting wines may cause a mild quiver of anxiety, but it's never really a problem.
Even in the best of times, when you're embracing aunts, third cousins and your best friend's sister's daughter, the joy of the feast and the renewal of ties go a long way toward mitigating the quality of whatever happens to be in your glass.
Still, good wine can be a significant asset. It can compel guests to take notice, to pause and ponder rather than gulp and disregard. If bottles are to be opened, why not select them with the same diligence you apply to choosing the perfect recipe for mashed potatoes?
Thanksgiving comes as COVID-19 cases are spiking nationwide. Every family will decide how to approach this often joyously rambunctious holiday. Many gatherings will be diminished as people, protecting their loved ones and themselves, decide not to travel or entertain. Thanksgivings for four, or two or even one will not be unusual.
Somehow, families will manage to bridge the distance. Whether through Zoom or the phone, people will find a way to share their blessings, maybe through a prayer or a toast. Wine can help forge these links, possibly by opening the same bottles from afar.
Our wine panel was not immune to the 2020 winnowing. Typically, we assemble monthly in a room at The New York Times building, where we consider and discuss a range of bottles. In deference to the pandemic, we have not gathered since February.
Still, we did not want to let Thanksgiving pass, so we got together outdoors, in the rooftop space of the NoMad restaurant in Manhattan. Even so, we were not entirely whole. Bernard Kirsch, our tasting coordinator, always joins us, but this year he opted out. Our colleague Pete Wells, like so many parents dealing with home-schooling, faced a last-minute child-care issue and could not attend.
That left Florence Fabricant, Julia Moskin and me, so we invited Thomas Pastuszak, NoMad's wine director, to contribute a couple of bottles. We would be tasting eight wines in all.
We stuck with our usual ground rules: Each of us would bring two wines, one white and one red. None would retail for more than $25. We adopted these guidelines years ago, believing that for big gatherings, nobody wants to spend a lot of money on wine.
Smaller gatherings offer different opportunities. You don't need as much wine, so if you like you can open your finest bottles.
Dinner for four, for example could begin with hors d'oeuvres and sparkling wine.
It could be Champagne. But if you want to emphasize American wines, I have found wonderful choices from the West Coast: Blue Ox, Cruse, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Soter and Under the Wire are a few names worth knowing about.
Follow that with a good white wine, whatever strikes your fancy. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, all will be great, but don't stop there. You might like an assyrtiko, or maybe a carricante. Maybe you're beginning with a creamy soup? Any of these wines will work, as long as they are not too oaky.
I would follow up with a red — a pinot noir or syrah, or maybe a Barolo or a Beaujolais. Whether serving turkey, or downsizing to a duck or chicken, these are all flexible with wine, so match the bottle to your sense of the occasion rather than with the food.
Maybe you would prefer two whites, or no whites at all. Why not? This is the year to eliminate rigid constraints.
Even so, the wine panel stayed with its philosophy of seeking out lithe, agile wines. If you have followed us over the years, you will have seen the recommendations for many different specific bottles — Beaujolais, Loire reds, Italian reds, Oregon pinot noirs, rosés, sparklers and even ciders.
These all continue to be great choices. But we have come to realize that the specifics don't matter nearly so much as the character and energy of the wines. Acidity, balance and relatively low alcohol are the watchwords.
We have gotten good at finding bottles that fit these criteria, and this year was no exception. In fact, all eight bottles earned three stars, the equivalent of excellent choices. What separates them are scant degrees of preference. They were all that good.
For her white, Julia brought a Côtes du Rhône blanc, a 2019 Clémentia from Domaine les Aphillanthes, made from biodynamically farmed viognier, roussanne and clairette.
This was a counterintuitive wine, as viognier in particular can be overbearing, but this was well-focused and lively, a "sunny wine," Julia said, that offered its tropical fruit flavors without being too heavy.
Her red was our favorite, a 2018 Verduno Basadone from Castello di Verduno, made of pelaverga piccolo grapes organically farmed in the Langhe region of Italy.
While the area is best known for its Barolo and Barbaresco, Langhe also grows pelaverga piccolo, one of a group of lesser-known grapes that offer excellent values. It was fresh, bright, spicy and intriguing.
Florence, too, went against the grain with her white, selecting a so-called orange wine, a white with some of the characteristics of a red.Many orange wines can seem idiosyncratic, and I often wonder whether people will want to drink them over the course of a long meal. This would be a good candidate to try.
Her red was a nonvintage pinot noir, the High Wire from Hound's Tree on the North Fork of Long Island — fresh, lively and refreshing.
I loved Thomas' white, a 2018 Mosel riesling from Julian Haart that was textured and rich with floral and stony mineral flavors. I called it a wake-up wine for the way it snapped me to attention, though Julia suggested it was maybe too bold.
Thomas' red came from Franck Balthazar, one of my favorite Cornas producers, who also has a small négociant operation. This 2018 Côtes du Rhône is 60% syrah and 40% grenache, farmed organically. It was spicy, earthy and complex, a lovely wine.
I stuck with American wines for my picks. My white, a 2018 Sonoma County chardonnay from Lioco, was tangy, textured and balanced, the sort of white wine that will go with almost anything.
My red was the 2017 Queen of the Sierra from Forlorn Hope, a blend of trousseau noir, mondeuse, zinfandel and a few other grapes, all organically grown in Calaveras County in the Sierra Foothills.
These eight bottles all epitomized the sorts of wines to seek out. I can't emphasize enough, though, that they are only examples. Dozens if not hundreds of other wines will fit these criteria. They won't make this Thanksgiving seem any more normal, but they couldn't hurt.
Refreshing and Ready for Thanksgiving
3 stars: Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay 2018, $22
Tangy, textured, energetic and balanced, with earthy, stony, floral and citrus flavors.
3 stars: Julian Haart Mosel Riesling "1,000L" 2018 One Liter, $24
Lively, bold and rich, with floral and mineral flavors. (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)
3 stars: Gia Coppola Lake County Orange Riesling 2019 One Liter, $25
Pretty orange wine, with an amber color, flavors of dried fruits and flowers, and a light touch of tannins.
3 stars: Domaine les Aphillanthes Côtes du Rhône Clémentia Blanc 2019, $20
A "sunny wine," as Julia Moskin put it, with flavors of tropical fruits, flowers and a kiss of honey. (Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pennsylvania)
3 stars: Castello di Verduno Verduno Basadone 2018, $24
Fresh and lively, with bright, spicy, incisive flavors of purple fruits, earth and a touch of citrus. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)
3 stars: Franck Balthazar Selections Côtes du Rhône 2018, $22
Lively, spicy and fresh, with earthy, peppery flavors. (Savio Soares Selections, New York)
3 stars: Forlorn Hope Queen of the Sierra Rorick Heritage Vineyard Calaveras County 2017, $22
Bright, fresh and energetic, with complex flavors of red fruits and herbs.
3 stars: Hound's Tree High Wire North Fork of Long Island Pinot Noir NV, $23
Light-bodied, with lively flavors of red fruits and a touch of refreshing bitterness.
Pairings: Spiced Shrimp
Rich, sweet flavors dominate the traditional Thanksgiving table, with cranberries offering a welcome acidic glow. Adding some spice to whet the appetite is a good idea, either for a nibble with a glass of wine or a cocktail, or as a first course.
For many years I have prepared a simply made dish of shrimp, coated with spices and quickly broiled. Some lemon contributes knife-edge sharpness. Certainly the bright acid-driven whites and the smoothly welcoming reds that were selected for our tasting would all be excellent partners.
The basic recipe is elastic, easily halved or scaled up. And the spice choices can vary. Here I have opted for ras el hanout, a complex North African blend that delivers modest peppery heat along with pungent elements of cumin, fenugreek and coriander, as well as the warm astringency of allspice and cloves. Harissa, a North African pepper sauce, seasons the dip.
When the occasion is not Thanksgiving, the shrimp can even be a main dish to serve three or four, paired with a grain like rice or farro, or with the recipe that follows, a buttery tumble of fluffy couscous. And one of our Thanksgiving wine choices. — Florence Fabricant
Yield: 4 to 8 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
1 pound large shrimp, about 20, preferably Gulf, shelled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon harissa paste, or to taste
1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons ras el hanout (Moroccan spice blend)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 lemon, seeds removed
Place shrimp in a bowl, and add the salt. Mix well, and set aside 30 minutes. Meanwhile, stir the yogurt, and mix in the harissa and cilantro. Transfer to a serving dish, and set aside.
Heat broiler. Rinse and dry shrimp, place in a bowl, and add the ras el hanout. Toss to mix thoroughly. Select a shallow baking dish that will hold the shrimp snugly in a single layer. Brush with a little of the butter. Arrange shrimp in the dish, and brush with remaining butter. Broil close to the source of heat until shrimp are lightly browned and cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. (Alternatively, the shrimp can be placed on soaked wooden skewers, about 3 shrimp per stick, and broiled or grilled over high heat, turning once.) Squeeze the lemon over the shrimp.
Serve as a cocktail snack directly from the dish with picks to skewer shrimp and harissa dip alongside.