11/09/11 – Thanksgiving wines, part one (Oregon)

By Jesse on November 8, 2011

Each year, the Winos embark on a journey to find the perfect wine for that Thanksgiving meal — even as numerous well-spoken wine luminaries, such as Alder Yarrow at Vinography, do their best to insist that there’s no such thing.  To quote Yarrow: “most people’s Thanksgiving meals, even the most modest of them, are a vast cornucopia of flavors so diverse, contrary, and strong … that the idea of finding ‘a’ wine to match with the meal is a ridiculous proposition.”  Is it?  Or have we just not yet discovered that wine-to-end-all-wines, that meta-wine, that Everlasting Gobstopper of a wine that perfectly adjusts itself, in glass and on palate, to pair perfectly with each dish encountered, no matter how flavorful?  (Probably not.  Probably closer to what Alder said.)

Other famous winos, though, accept the challenge anew every year.  Eric Asimov of The New York Times had terrific success picking out Thanksgiving wines two years ago.  According to Eric, the perfect wines for turkey n’ trimmings “must be modest but confident wines that assert their flavors in harmony with the food rather than trying to dominate the proceedings.”  When I think moderate yet confident, assertive yet harmonious, the American region I’d think of (after all, giving thanks is a primarily American custom) would be Oregon.  Next week we’ll get into some Beaujolais for tradition’s sake  — this will be the LA chapter’s fifth November Beaujolais tasting — but first let’s explore some offerings from our neighbor to the slightly north.

Oregon is an exciting location in the world of domestic wines. It’s a difficult place to grow grapes; the state has cold weather, a rainy climate, and a name that no one can figure out how to pronounce (is it “or-a-GON” or “or-a-GINN?” No one knows for sure). Oregon’s most important wine region is the Willamette (definitely pronounced “will-AM-ette”) Valley, which also has various sub-regions within it. Other regions include Rogue Valley, Columbia Valley, and Umpqua Valley. Reds and whites are both fair game for this meeting — as are sparklers, if you can find one.

Whites: on the blanc side, Chardonnay was the most widely-planted white grape as of the 2001 publication of my copy of The Wine Bible. However, this website claims that Pinot Gris is now the leader on the white side, which makes sense, as it’s definitely become the most celebrated white grape in the state. Besides the Chardonnay and the Pinot Gris, both of which can be excellent, also look for Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.

Reds: Pinot Noir is the grape that’s really put Oregon on the map. According to The Wine Bible, Pinot is the “soul of winemaking” in Oregon, particularly the bottles from the Willamette Valley. A French agricultural journal did a study in which they compared the climates of the Willamette Valley and France’s Burgundy region — the classic European home of great Pinot — and discovered that the two locations mirror each other almost identically in sunlight, temperature, and average rainfall. The hallmark of both regions is a cool climate combined with high amounts of precipitation, resulting in slow-ripening, well-balanced Pinot Noir.  To quote Bible author Karen MacNeil: “grown where they are bathed in the hot sun, [Pinot Noir] grapes end up as a wine that tastes something like pureed prunes mixed with flat cola.”  In Willamette’s cool maritime climate, however, grapes “do not burst into ripeness but instead make their way slowly and methodically toward maturity.” Meanwhile, the warmer vineyards in the eastern part of the state are the source of some nice Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The good people at Willamette Valley Vineyards have sent the Young Winos three bottles of Oregon wine to taste at this meeting.  Willamette Valley Vineyards recently had the distinction of being named one of Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries of the year, so hopefully these will be some tasty bottles that showcase the best traits of Oregonian winemaking.  For this meeting, please feel free to bring either a bottle of Oregon wine or a $10 “no-bottle” donation.

We’ll be meeting at Wino HQ in Sherman Oaks, and this week’s meeting starts at 8pm. The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions), and I’ll send you a confirmation e-mail with the address.  Once you’ve gotten your confirmation e-mail, go out and find yourself a nice bottle of Oregon wine (or bring a $10 donation, if you prefer). We’ll see you on Wednesday at 8pm!