Turkey, who needs a turkey?
For me, the Thanksgiving meal is the culminating celebration of a mid-Atlantic bounty of vegetables and fruit. Beginning with the shoots of spring, this feast continues through summer (real tomatoes!), and finishes now with all those wonderful apples, and gourds and root vegetables.
Of course, most Americans will be enjoying turkey tomorrow. But it's those side dishes that seem to foment bibulous consternation: What wine to serve that can stand up to those flavorful foods yet not overpower the bird.
And, as if to add to the annual angst, a legion of epicures has appeared in the last decade or so, advocating not wine but beer at the table. Count me as one of that horde.
Even though wines such as cru Beaujolais (not insipid Beaujolais Nouveau) or Gruner Veltliner or Champagne (or slightly fruitier Prosecco) can be fine wine accompaniments, it is beers —with their flavors derived from roasting, toasting, sprouting, and cooking— that are natural complements to the meal.
As beer writer Lew Bryson put it:
with Thanksgiving you've got a variety of traditional foods on the table, usually simple, and generally not sourced from wine-country cuisine.
In a 2003 piece I wrote, entitled —surprise— Turkey and Beer, my recommendations were saison and Flemish sour reds. I'll stand with those tomorrow.
But beer writer Stephen Beaumont suggests:
Ordinarily, I enjoy Champagne with turkey. On the beer front, I'd probably side with that wine's close cousin and select a firm, dry gueuze.
I'm a dedicated fan of gueuze and unsweetend lambics. But the intense sourness of gueuze, and its lactic and gamey aromas (though appropriate to the meal), may be too much for some diners.
So I'll offer one more recommendation.
Writing in the winter issue of BEER, the house magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), Dylan Jones —editor of GQ Magazine (!)— said this:
just a few months ago, I had one of my very rare epiphanies, sitting in the River Café in Glasbury-on-Wye. Studying the drinks menu and looking for something that would successfully accompany a gargantuan portion of the (very good) food they serve there, I spied something called Westons Vintage Special, an 8.2 per cent proof cider. <...> My experience with with Westons has made me completely change my attitude towards the drink. Not only have I recently sought out two local ciders in France (one in Brittany and one near Banyuls), but I have started paying more attention to real British organic ciders. <...> Simply put, I've been converted.
Being from the British Isles, Mr. Jones did not link real cider to Thanksgiving. I will.
Real cider is not sweet flavored alcoholic apple juice. Very different in production and flavor, it bursts with phenolic complexity, tannic structure, sharp effervescence, and refreshing acidity.
And although real cider lacks the cooking-flavor hooks of beer, its inherent character and seasonality makes it an appropriate mate for the entire Thanksgiving meal.
The Washington Post recently ran a piece on cider in the Spirits column: It's Time Cider Got Some Good Press.
In the early years of America, most apples ended up in the cider barrel. Cider was the beverage of choice in those days, mainly because apples were cheaper and easier to come by than the grains and grapes with which Europeans made their liquor [and beer and wine]. By the 17th century, cider often was being substituted for water, which was considered to be unsafe.
Cider ruled until the end of the 19th century, when temperance-movement zealots began chopping down entire apple orchards, "unable to conceive of any other use for the fruit except spirits," according to "Laird's Applejack Cookbook." That resulted in one of the saddest and least-acknowledged culinary legacies of the temperance movement and Prohibition: the loss of acres and acres of American cider apple varieties.
As to real cider suggestions, stay away from what you see on supermarket shelves and on tap at many bars. Those ciders are merely sweet, flavored, artificially carbonated apple juice with alcohol added. Rather, the Post's Jason Wilson recommends
the clean, refreshing notes of the British cider Aspall; the dry, champagne-like elegance of french products such as Eric Bordelet Sydre Argelette; the crisp, sappy Farnum Hill's Extra dry, which hits some of the same notes as, say, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. <...> A cider such as Etienne Dupont, my other favorite, has tiny, sparkling bubbles, a yeasty and ripe fruit aroma, an intense yet round apple flavor, and a lightness that makes it very drinkable.
Real ciders —or 'cidre' as the Brittany French refer to them— are often packaged in 500-ml or 750-ml bottles. They can run, price-wise, the same as cheap wine, but as Wilson notes, at 6% to 9% alcohol, they make for tasty replacements over mediocre white wine.
In the U.K., real cider is usually served fresh from casks like real ale. More here.
Whatever your food choice, and whatever your libation choice, enjoy a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
Caveat: I work for a beer and wine wholesaler in northern Virginia —Select Wines— which sells Aspall Cider.