The Cabinet

of Dr. Callegari

Giving Thanks with Wine

Every year at this time the internet gets liberally basted with articles and listicles about what to drink with your Thanksgiving dinner, a meal notoriously terrible for wine. In addition to the obvious challenges (e.g. trying to enjoy a drink sandwiched between your racist grandma and your cousin's gluten-free boyfriend; having to pretend that your uncle's homemade Zinfandel is even remotely tolerable), the "traditional" foods served to remind us how white people generously allowed American Indians to eat a potato before liquidating their culture are simply impossible to pair with the wines the US is best known for. Most of the advice pieces will note that trading your bold Napa Cabernet for a crisp Loire Chenin Blanc is an easy fix, and certainly that will resolve at least the problem of candied yams managing to taste, however improbably,  even worse when matched with a tannic red. But what if you wanted your Thanksgiving feast to come with a glass of real Americana? That would require learning something about indigenous American grapes and the wines produced from them, something now fairly easy to do thanks to shifting trends and the internet. 

While it is not surprising that Americans were able to create a holiday with a menu that somehow makes even accompanying beverages taste disgusting, it is surprising that Americans gave up so completely on their indigenous wine. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay do splendidly in the big US wine-producing regions, vitis vinifera in all of its many forms is in fact a European colonizer. Most of us have never even heard of the grapes that would properly be found alongside turkey, potatoes and cranberries in North America, among them Muscadine and Norton, delightfully known in Latin as vitis rotundifolia and vitis aestivalis. The reason for this is that once upon a time it was decided that indigenous American grapes didn't make good-tasting wine (their wine is notoriously "foxy"--a worthless tasting note if I ever heard one), though to be clear that meant they didn't make wine that tasted like the European standards. My guess is that with a little attention and investment American grapes could be the base for some very interesting, if not familiar, wines, as producers like La garagista have indeed already shown.

A holiday when people are willing to eat turnips because they're authentic is a great time to push the boundaries of your wine experience and taste something new, and American grapes are a genuinely fun and unexpected way to do it. Concord, Muscadine or Norton (properly native to the northeast, the southeast and the midwest, respectively) are some true indigenous examples that aren't too hard to find, though of course you may not love the unusual palette. For something a little closer to what you're used to, you can try hybrids, including Chambourcin, Frontesac and Marquette. Usually buying these wines will require either visiting a local retailer in the right place, or using an internet search to find them and have them shipped to you, and some of the more popular producers working with American or hybrid species will be tough to get your hands on because of small production and growing popularity. That said, all 50 states produce wine with some examples of American grapes, so if you're in the US, you're halfway there already. And if you don't feel like making the effort, at least check out this vigneron in Alaska who won't give up cultivating grapes and is making me feel very patriotic at the moment.

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