Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Wines

Enough already with all the stressing over Thanksgiving wines. Truth is, the Thanksgiving meal is a mess. The chances of choosing a wine to match that cacophony of flavors are slim to middling. Sweet to ultra sweet sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. Bland meat to savory sausage-and-herb stuffing. Creamy dressing to green beans with almonds. What’s a host to do? 
One option is to go commando and serve what you and your guests will like, pairings be damned. Got a Zinfandel crowd? Go for it, serve Zin. Make it a 2009, a vintage whose cooler temperatures helped bring balance to this notorious heavyweight, plus lower alcohol levels. If your group sways Chard, try an unoaked or lighter-oaked version, perhaps from Oregon or a California no-brainer such as Monterey’s Morgan Metallico or Four Oaks Naked Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  

You can also challenge a white-wine crowd with an off-dry selection to complement the sweet spot in many Thanksgiving sides and sauces. German or Washington Riesling do the trick, as will a South African Chenin Blanc or an off-dry Loire Vouvray. Look for South Africa’s MAN Vintners or Ken Forrester; in the Loire, Guy Saget has got it down.

If that touch of sweetness doesn’t work for your gang, aim for Pinot Gris, which is about as food-friendly a white wine as you’re going to find. Oregon is the winner here, with great selections from King Estate, A to Z and others.

Not there yet? Don’t be blasé about rosé, a wine with enough pizazz to carry the Thanksgiving meal, from appetizers up to dessert. But if pink is not your deal, look to Pinot Noir to save the day. A fruitier version makes a more harmonious choice with turkey sides. Choose a warmer vintage or growing region, whether a 2009 from Oregon or a juicy California crowd-pleaser, as in the value-priced 2009 District 7 from not-so-warm Monterey. Plenty of 2010 beauties await too, from Sonoma on down the Central Coast. Flowers, Failla, Calera, Cambria, Byron, Sanford and Siduri are sure to deliver, California-style.

If you have a real party crowd on your hands, go bold with bubbles. A pretty Lambrusco from Italy will work its magic, while a perky and sweeter Shiraz sparkler like Jam Jar is ace to get your party started.

Finally, if your turkey wine doesn’t have to be born in the USA, look to France and cru Beaujolais. Skip the just-arrived nouveau stuff that can come up short in complexity and depth. Instead, seek out Beaujolais from designated cru regions, such as Côte de Brouilly, Morgon or Fleurie. The 2009 vintage produced a bevy of gorgeous wines – look for them, or take a shot at value-priced Beaujolais-Villages wines from producers such as Georges Duboeuf. To better enjoy their verve and fruity freshness, pop them in the frig for 20 minutes before serving time, just to give them a little chill.

So what’s this year’s pick for my Thanksgiving crowd? At the risk of being branded un-American, I’m going with the Château Thivin 2009 Côte de Brouilly. When first tasted earlier this year, it seemed to have Thanksgiving written all over it with enchanting aromatics and luscious, fresh fruit flavors wrapped around a core of earthy spice. Now that its exuberance has been tamed by a few more months in the bottle, I’m betting on this cru Beaujolais to pull our meal together with punch and intrigue. If it falls short or gets lost in the Thanksgiving flavor mosh pit, there won't be any stressing. Instead, we'll look ahead to the next wine-in-waiting, with someone eager to pop a cork and offer thanks for all that we have around the table, in each other, in life.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Remembering Serge Renaud

The wine world lost a force provocateur with the passing of Serge Renaud late last month. The Bordeaux-based scientist caused a disruptive moment with his 1991 appearance on the CBS program 60 Minutes, an episode credited with embedding the term French Paradox in the American lexicon. In the segment, Renaud described studies that linked lower rates of heart disease among the French to their consumption of healthy fats and custom of washing down fat- and cheese-laden meals with wine. When asked to explain why even the northern French, whose diet contains very little olive oil, had lower rates of heart disease than Americans, Renaud said, "My explanation is, of course, the consumption of alcohol."

By up-ending the prevailing view at the time that only considered alcohol's potential for harm, televised comments by Dr. Renaud and epidemiologist R. Curtis Ellison, MD created an ensuing buzz that helped propel funding and research activity to delve deeper into the paradox and, by extension, the nature and prevention of cardiovascular and other inflammatory diseases. The segment, which provided enough fodder to prompt 60 Minutes to revisit the story in 1995 and again in 2009, also caused Americans to rethink wine. What followed into the 1990s was a dramatic upswing in American wine consumption, and a new taste for reds. 

While not all of Dr. Renaud's theories gained traction, the University of Bordeaux professor offered the scientific community a new lens with which to study heart disease and diet. Specifically, Dr. Renaud's work shed light on alcohol's anti-clumping effects on platelets and how this action appeared to prevent the formation of blood clots that set the stage for heart attacks or strokes. His groundbreaking papers in the 1960s and 1970s challenged conventional wisdom regarding cholesterol and saturated fat through experiments that linked atherosclerosis and fatal clots with effects of dietary fats on platelet function and biochemical changes to blood vessel walls.

Perhaps his most far-reaching findings involved studies published during the 1980s and 1990s on effects of dietary change on health, specifically, the heart-protective Cretan or Mediterranean diet. A 1995 study by Renaud published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition criticized the so-called prudent diet, which the American Heart Association championed for heart patients at the time. Renaud's paper showed the prudent diet was clinically inferior to the Cretan Mediterranean diet of the 1960s, with more than a 70% reduction in cardiovascular events, heart attacks and overall death rates in heart patients who followed a Mediterreanean diet that gave less emphasis to meat and was richer in olive and canola oils, grains, fish, legumes – and red wine.

Cardiologist Tedd M. Goldfinger, Chairman of the Renaud Society, an association of medical professionals with an interest in the wine-health connection to which this author belongs, called the Society's patriarch "a champion of health through nutrition," whose many contributions included scientific insights into fatty acid metabolism and the range of benefits associated with a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular health.
With Serge Renaud, Ph.D., (right) and R. Curtis Ellison, MD, Walla Walla, Wash. 2009

Looking back at his prolific career for an article in the Lancet published on the first day of the new millennium, Renaud reflected to author Bruno Simini, “If I hadn’t lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents on a vineyard near Bordeaux, perhaps this idea wouldn’t have occurred to me. When you see people reach the age of 80 or 90 years, who have been drinking small amounts of wine every day, you don’t believe wine in low doses is harmful.”

Renaud passed away within sight of his seaside home in Carcans Maubuisson in the Médoc, a few weeks shy of 85th birthday. We are grateful for his contributions, and thankful to have shared in his gentle presence.