WineLine No. 35
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Nov. 8, 2003

Celebrate the Day

Dear Friends -

One of the biggest canards about wine writing is the annual Thanksgiving article. For some reason, bland, boring turkey is touted as a difficult food for wine. Then of course there's the tart or sickly sweet cranberry sauce, the lumpy gravy, and the oysters in the stuffing. And everyone knows those tiny marshmallows on top of the sweet potato casserole are just murder on your palate. The Keepers of the Keys to the Kingdom (a.k.a., wine columnists) waste their ink and our time every November reinforcing this supposed fear of wine on Turkey Day. The more creative or unscrupulous of them even stretch the theme out over two columns as they lay down their vinous dicta of what not to drink with this or that item on the menu.

Come off it folks. With so many different flavors on the table, any wine is going to pair well with something. We may need to be careful about what we eat just before taking a sip, but if there's a theme to wine with Thanksgiving dinner, it should be, "Open One of Everything!"

If there's an indispensable wine for such a meal, my bet is it has bubbles. The fizz in sparkling wine - whether Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, an effervescent Aussie, an American sparkler or a tête de cuvee from a top Champagne house in Reims or Epernay - cleanses and revives the palate. Many of these wines have enough body to pair well with virtually any food. And they don't have to break the bank.

And there's no reason to limit these wines to special occasions such as Thanksgiving, New Year's, weddings and such. They can be perfect for those "every days" worth celebrating - a tough day at the office, a minor victory over the jerk in the next cubicle, or just a beautiful sunset enjoyed on the commute home.

These triumphs over the mundane are worth celebrating, too. Why not?

Bubbles do not have to be expensive, and our options in the cheaper price ranges have improved dramatically from the days of Great Western or Cold Duck. André? Great tennis player; lousy wine. There are plenty of options for bargain bubbly that can turn an ordinary day into a special occasion.

My favorite Cava, worth buying by the case, is Cristallino. At about $8 it can't be beat for price, and the wine delivers with crisp, refreshing acidity that cleanses the palate and perks up the spirit. Looking for a little more oomph? Try Sigura Viudas ($15), or the weightier Sigura Viudas Heredad ($20), both with enough body to pair well with hearty nibbles, cheeses and lighter seafood dishes. For a mini-Champagne, look for the illogically named 1+1=3 ($20), made primarily from Chardonnay grapes and an excellent partner to fruits and dishes with fruit-based sauces.

Italy chimes in with Prosecco - not a full cathedral carillon, perhaps, but a mellifluous wind chime that carries a hint of music on a crisp fall breeze. Prosecco is the name of the grape indigenous to northern Italy that yields this fizzy wine, which is usually made by the "bulk" or Charmat process rather than the traditional Champagne method that gives the wine a second fermentation in the bottle. Usually, I would caution against buying wines made this way, but the Italians have figured out how to make it work. In Prosecco, look for Zardetto (about $12) or Mionetto "Sergio," ($15). Mionetto also markets IL Prosecco ($10), a light-bodied, nearly off-dry sparkler that makes for some easy, relaxing drinking. The IL Prosecco is topped with a bottle cap, the fizzy equivalent of the screw cap. You lose the pop of the Champagne-style cork, but not the bubbles.

Our bargain bubbly options continue down under with some cheap fizz from Australia. Seaview ($8) features bubble-gum flavors and effusive, nose-tickling bubbles. Greg Norman Estates ($10) offers a refreshing, medium-bodied Chardonnay-Pinot Noir blend in the traditional style.

If you're traveling up the U.S. East Coast, look for sparkling wine from the Finger Lakes. Chateau Frank has a full line of Champagne taste-alikes. Glenora is another label to look for.

Most of these wines are light- to medium-bodied. They make fine aperitifs and are perfect for toasting or creating a special occasion. Restaurants should always be offering something from this list by the glass - these bubbles make an inexpensive way to set the mood for the rest of the meal. (Why do so many restaurants only offer an expensive Champagne at $15 or more per glass - come on people, get with the program! Happy diners = bigger tippers.) These wines can pair well with lighter foods, such as the finger foods or appetizers we often start with at dinner parties.

For fuller-flavored dishes, however, we should turn to fuller-bodied Champagnes or sparkling wines. (Technically, Champagne comes only from that region in France; all others are sparkling wines. But let's not be stuffy - it's all fizz.) We abuse these wines by neglecting their affinity for food. Maybe not roast beef, but nearly any seafood, poultry or even pork dish can be matched with a suitable sparkling wine.

An excellent Champagne that offers complexity and finesse in the traditional style without breaking the bank - Oui! C'est possible! - is Montaudon Brut 1997 ($35). The Montaudon non-vintage wine typically costs around $25 and is one of Champagne's best bargains. If you want a little extra passion in your wine, as in passion fruit, try the Charles Lafitte "Orgueil de France" Brut 1989 ($50).

Comparing Champagne to California's top sparklers, the French originals have a definite advantage when it comes to the têtes du cuvees, the top-of-the-line expensive bottlings. Yet these also far outstrip their California cousins in price. Dollar for dollar, California's best sparkling wines can indeed give Champagne a run for its money.

For California's exuberant best, look for the wide range of sparklers from Iron Horse, including their Classic Vintage Brut 1998 ($30). For finesse, look to Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros or Schramsberg. Each of these houses produces a full line of bubblies that will help turn any meal into a festive occasion.

Winery of the Year? A hokey concept, perhaps, but my nominee this year would be Bonny Doon. Not only is the iconoclastic Randall Grahm leading the movement to screwcaps in California, he's downright screwy. Case in point: the winery's hilarious April Fool's newsletter, headlined "Marsanne Attacks!" In case you missed it, it's online at (Adobe Acrobat file)

Another case in point: Grahm's wonderful insistence on producing wines from varietals that have somehow eluded the consciousness of corporate marketing types. In other words, Riesling. Barbera. Malvasia. Roussane. Marsanne. His 2002 "The Heart Has Its Rieslings" ($15) shows just how well that variety can do in the United States. And his 2002 Ca' del Solo Big House Red ($10) is a California Rhone that could teach the French Rhone a lesson or two in etiquette and deportment.

And here's a weird wine-and-food match: At a recent dinner at home, my wife and I sipped some of Bonny Doon's 2002 Vin Gris de Cigare rosé while I grilled a leg of lamb. When we sat down to eat, I noticed my wife still had some rosé in her glass and was ignoring the big Aussie Shiraz I had opened. She had discovered quite by chance that the pink wine paired better with the grilled meat. It was the Shiraz that was left over for the next night. Ahhh, acidity.

Happy Holidays!
Dave McIntyre

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