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Bringing it all together

Thanksgiving has long posed a problem for wine drinkers. There are just too many food choices to settle easily on a pairing. Do you match the wine to the relatively bland turkey or zero in on the often-sweet side dishes?

Or, do you go with the "glue" that holds the whole thing together, the gravy?

Chicago-area wine experts have their own strategies.

Joe Kafka of Kafka Wine Co. thinks a French Cote du Rhone would work because gravy tends to have lots of fat, salt and a strong meaty or mushroomy flavor. It would stand up to the flavors but not overpower them like a cabernet sauvignon, he said. He added that a pinot noir would probably be too light to cut the grease. An American syrah would not work either.

"I think it has to be French," he said. "American syrahs can be great but they're an entirely different animal. ... Too fruity and not food-friendly."

Mike Baker of Wine Discount Center goes with a cabernet franc from the French region of Chinon, the 2003 Bernard Baudry Les Grezeaux.

"It is powerful and dark, but elegant and nuanced, with enough earth and fruit and acid to pair up with and cut a rich gravy."

Jerry Kohn of Dobby's World Wide Wine & Liquors in Palatine, Ill., goes for a Morgon, a cru Beaujolais from France. "It would be heavy enough to stand up to the gravy, but light enough not to overpower the turkey," he said.

Alixe Lischett of Cabernet & Co. in Glen Ellyn, Ill., had three ideas. She'd pour a sparkling wine while making the gravy, then serve a pinot blanc and a pinot noir with the finished gravy and the rest of the meal.

"Depends on the crowd, but I really think pinot blanc is the perfect Thanksgiving wine," she said. "It's a wine that's really meant to be enjoyed with food. It's got enough flavor and acidity to stand up to a traditional turkey dinner and not overpower the food. My other choice is always pinot noir. A medium-bodied one with good acid. Nothing too earthy. And since its Thanksgiving, a truly American holiday, I suggest sticking to something domestic on both counts."

Brian Duncan, Bin 36 wine director, likes the idea of bubbly. "I always think sparkling wines and Champagne work really great. Some people think it's only for toasts, but it goes through the meal. It goes with ham and it goes with turkey." And, gravy too, of course.



The challenge of pairing wine with anything on the Thanksgiving table was vividly demonstrated when we sat down for an informal blind tasting of eight wines and a big bowl of turkey gravy. The wines, four whites and four reds, had been chosen with some care; they had to be Thanksgiving-worthy: interesting, lively and maybe a little pricey. On the whole, the wines held up very well on their own.

But add the gravy and the scores for the whites slumped sharply. The reds managed to hold their own or actually taste better with the meatiness of the gravy. That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider these whites for Thanksgiving. The Argentine torrontes was truly terrific and the whites would hold up well against the turkey and many of the sides, such as sweet potatoes, cranberry relish and creamed onions. Ratings reflect how well the wines worked with the gravy.

2003 Marques de Vargas Rioja Reserva: Top scorer on its own and with gravy, this Spanish wine made with tempranillo grapes came within a whisker of winning a 4-corkscrew rating. Expect flavors of cherry, clove, mint underscored by a flinty minerality. The red wine brought out a delicious savory note to the gravy, enriching it. 3 corks. $26

2003 Benessere Sangiovese: Plenty of cherry notes to this aromatic Napa Valley wine made from sangiovese, a grape usually associated with Tuscany. The red wine played well with the gravy, each rounding out the other's flavor. 3 corks. $30

2006 Colome Torrontes: From Argentina, a refreshingly crisp white with notes of litchi, pear and stone. The wine is excellent on its own, but the gravy didn't enhance it. There was no real spark to the match, dropping the wine's score a full point. 3 corks. $15

2006 Vignerons de Caractere Ombre des Fontaines: This Cotes du Rhone red, a blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault, had a light, fruity profile with plenty of berry notes. Most tasters thought the wine too fruity to do the gravy justice. 2 corks. $10

2005 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc: A refreshingly tart, crisp white from California's Santa Ynez Valley. Expect just a touch of effervescence, followed by herbal notes and some melon flavor. The wine and gravy flow seamlessly together, but neither really enhanced the other. 2 corks. $22

2005 Albert Mann Gewurztraminer: This Alsatian white had lots of minerality pumped up by apricot, mango and pear flavors. Great on its own. Most tasters thought the gravy drowned out the wine's voluptuousness. 2 corks. $23

2002 Cave de Vouvray Lieu-dit Rosnay: Made entirely from the chenin blanc grape, this Vouvray from France's Loire Valley had a green apple flavor and a fruity sweetness that got lost when paired up with the gravy. 2 corks. $14

2004 Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel Red Wine

This Californian was tart, peppery, with notes of tobacco, earth and leather. But the gravy dulled the wine slightly. 2 corks. $18