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Pour Some Fruity, Spicy Zinfandel for Thanksgiving

Fine Cooking Issue 47
Photo: Scott Phillips
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The other night, my friends Virginia and John had me over for a meatloaf dinner. The wine we drank was a soft, fruity Zinfandel, and it was delicious with everything on the plate: meatloaf, roasted sweet potatoes, and soy-glazed broccoli. I bring this up not to brag about Virginia’s cooking (stellar), or John’s taste in wine (first-rate) but because our humble meal was one of those right-on wine and food matches that you don’t forget—and one that you rarely expect of such simple food.

I’ve always liked Zinfandel, but its marrying so well with such diverse and homespun flavors got me thinking: Could Zinfandel be just the thing for Thanksgiving—a versatile, easy-drinking crowd-pleaser that could accompany the myriad dishes on the menu? I decided to check in with some of my favorite experts.

From berry-like to brawny

But first, a word about Zinfandel, which ranges from light, berry-flavored, and spicy to intense, high-alcohol (often over 15%), and almost port-like. Most of the really intense examples are made from old vines and say so on the label, but an old-vine Zin needn’t be a massive one. All the experts I spoke with cautioned that delicious as those big, brawny Zins can be, it’s best to stick to light- and medium-bodied ones (for Thanksgiving, at least) to avoid overwhelming the food—and your guests.

I started with Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard, who makes some good Zin himself. “Zinfandel is fruity, exuberant, spicy—it’s a great choice for Thanksgiving,” he agreed. “Turkey is the Switzerland of the poultry world—it’s neutral—and needs those accent marks of fruit and spice, which is one of the things Zinfandel does best.” Ridge Lytton Springs is one of his favorites.

“Thanksgiving is a two-wine meal—you need a soft white and a fruity red,” says John Ash, culinary director for Fetzer Vineyards and a wine and food teacher. For the red-wine drinkers at your table, “Zinfandel’s peppery, blackfruit quality is delicious with anything roasted. And if you’re smoke-roasting or barbecuing your turkey, a Zin would be amazing,” he adds. With roasted turkey, John recommends Zinfandel by Lake Sonoma and De Loach.

Annie Quatrano, chef and owner of Bacchanalia and Float Away Café in Atlanta, also thinks light-style, fruity Zinfandel is great for Thanksgiving. “I love it with sausage and cornbread stuffing, with cranberry sauce, with creamed onions, and with sweet potatoes,” she says, “especially if they contain aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg.” Lolonis and Dry Creek are two of her favorites.

Karen MacNeil, chair of wine programs at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and author of The Wine Bible, agrees. (And being married to a Zinfandel producer, she has some additional insight.) “Many varietals would have a hard time accompanying such divergent flavors,” she says. “There’s another factor—texture,” she adds, pointing out that a Zinfandel with jammy flavor and soft texture is perfect with Thanksgiving foods, many of which are soft (“Think mashed potatoes”). Karen likes Zin from Beaulieu Vineyards (“a steal at $13”). And, yes, she recommends Fife Zinfandel, which is made by her husband.

Tim Gaiser, a contributing editor to Fine Cooking, says that because Zin ranges so widely in price and style, it’s wise to find a retailer who can help you get acquainted with individual producers, several of whom make different Zinfandels in different price ranges. Tim’s favorites include those by Easton and Seghesio. “Zinfandel is all about lush, ripe fruit; it’s everything we love about wine,” he says. “All it demands is that you enjoy it.”

Zinfandels to seek out

Any of these dozen Zinfandels would be delicious with Thanksgiving dinner. Many producers make several different examples.

Beaulieu Vineyards
Bonny Doon Vineyard Cardinal Zin
De Loach
Dry Creek Heritage Clone
Easton Shenandoah Valley
Fife Whaler Vineyard
Lake Sonoma
Lolonis
Peirano Estate
Ravenswood Vintners Blend
Ridge Lytton Springs
Seghesio Sonoma

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