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Gobble the bird, then chase it down with what pleases you

Wine writers hate Thanksgiving.

Why? Because that's when people -- especially editors -- always ask them what wine to serve with turkey dinner.

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And why do we hate that question? Because it exposes our ignorance, that's why. That big dumb bird and its convoy of Thanksgiving side dishes manage to stump us every time.

The conundrum is this: To many of us, a feast is not a feast without fine wine. Thanksgiving is America's national chow-down feast -- the one occasion each year when gluttony becomes a patriotic duty. (In France, by contrast, there are three such days: Hier, Aujourd'hui and Demain.) But with the traditional turkey dinner, there really is no perfect wine.

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On the other hand, it's hard to identify many wines that are clearly bad choices. There are a few. A wispy Muscadet is clearly absurd, and a vintage port would be comically out of place. But a case, not necessarily a good one, can be made for just about anything in between.

In her book "Wine With Food," Barbara Ensrud includes California sauvignon blanc and Beaujolais nouveau on her list of suggested pairings with the Thanksgiving turkey. To me, both suggestions are questionable, but I suspect many people will agree with her.

In the Nov. 15 Wine Spectator, Harvey Steiman has created an entire menu for two around turkey thigh and cabernet sauvignon, but he admits the purpose of his exercise is to make the Thanksgiving spread "cabernet compatible." Many of us, I suspect, will have little success persuading Grandma to change the way she cooks turkey, even if we offered to crack open a Caymus Special Selection.

By now you've probably noticed that I'm evading the main question: Which wine should I serve at Thanksgiving dinner?

OK, here goes -- the definitive answer: Serve something you like.

I know, there he goes again -- Slick Mike, waffling when pressed for a specific answer.

It's not such a bad answer, though. If cabernet is what you like, cabernet will do adequate service on the Thanksgiving table. Likewise for chardonnay. To me, neither is an ideal fit, but there are millions of American families who will proclaim otherwise come Thanksgiving Day.

The holiday simply defies prescriptions.

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Nevertheless, there is some general advice that is sound:

* Thanksgiving is a special occasion, and it deserves a special wine -- even if not all those in attendance are connoisseurs. Expect to spend a little more than you would on a typical weekend, but there's no reason to break the bank.

* Special does not mean the finest bottle of rare wine from your cellar. The delicate nuances of a classic, well-aged wine can be drowned out by the cacophony of flavors and multitude of distractions at the Thanksgiving table. So save the 1961 Chateau Petrus for a more contemplative occasion.

* If your budget permits, hedging your bets by providing multiple wines in different styles is a gracious gesture.

* Don't be hurt if you provide a wonderful wine and nobody notices. Most families are not gatherings of oenophiles.

* Avoid overly tannic wines, such as young red Bordeaux from a top vineyard. Turkey can be dry enough without adding another drying element to the meal. This is not an occasion to show off a wine that will be great 10 years down the road. Aunt Minnie won't care.

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But you want specifics, don't you?

Here goes:

With a little trial and a lot of error, I have identified a few types of wine that seem to work especially well with Thanksgiving dinner. They include:

* Alsace pinot gris. It's esoteric and it's hard to find good examples, particularly in Alsace-resistant Maryland, but a fine Alsace pinot gris (sometimes called tokay pinot gris) seems to match the range of traditional foods as well as any wine around.

The key is to find a really good one, from a top vintage such as 1983, 1985, 1989 or 1990 (the best age beautifully). The best pinot gris are creamy, lush wines with a broad palette of exuberant fruit flavors that can even stand up to candied yams. So intense is the fruit that many Alsace pinot gris can seem sweet, but generally they are quite dry.

Unlike most chardonnays, Alsace pinot gris generally spends no time in small oak barrels. For me, that's an advantage, because I don't see any affinity between oak and turkey.

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If you go into a wine shop and ask for an Alsace pinot gris, don't be surprised if the salesperson comes up short and offers you a pinot blanc instead. It's not quite the same, but it's not a bad idea either, as long as you get a full-bodied pinot blanc from a producer such as Josmeyer.

Oregon also produces some fine pinot gris that go very well with salmon, but those I've tried, Adelsheim and Ponzi, lack the stuffing to hold their own on the Thanksgiving table.

Expect to spend $12 to $25 for a fine pinot gris and $8 to $15 for a top-notch pinot blanc.

* Red Burgundy or other pinot noir. It's all a matter of proportion. Too light a pinot noir will seem thin and bitter when it bumps into roast turkey; too grand a wine will get lost in the culinary confusion. But something right down the middle can be delicious.

Some promising regions to look at are Santenay, Mercurey, Fixin and some of the vineyards of Beaune. Be wary of tannic vintages such as 1988, but 1987, 1989 and 1990 all produced some fruity wines for early consumption. (Careful with 1990; the more

exalted wines can be too tannic.)

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For turkey purposes, pinot noir from Oregon and California can rank right up there with good Burgundy. Just stay away from big, burly versions in favor of those with a lighter touch. Oregon's River Ridge and California's Saintsbury are excellent examples.

For Burgundy, it's easy to get into big bucks, but chances are that any investment over $40 would be wasted amid the Thanksgiving hoopla. Good California or Oregon pinot noir should cost you $10 to $20.

* Zinfandel. It's big, burly and red. Turkey meat, at least most of it, is white and delicate. But somehow the twain meet over the Thanksgiving table in a harmonious way.

In most cases, the overriding characteristic of zinfandel is exuberant, concentrated fruit, with gobs of pepper and spice seasoning.

On the face of it, a big zinfandel should overwhelm turkey, but somehow it doesn't. The sappy fruit makes a dramatic impression, and it can stand up to almost anything on the Thanksgiving table except the dreaded yams.

If you need another reason, consider that zinfandel is America's own grape. California is the only place it makes great wine, and its European origins are a matter of scholarly debate.

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Expect to pay between $8 and $15, except for a few rarities that can go past $20.

* German riesling. Let's face it, not everybody at your Thanksgiving table is likely to have a sophisticated palate. Some relative will probably prefer a wine with a little sweetness.

That doesn't mean you have to reach for the cream white concord. There are compromises that can appeal both to the sophisticate and the novice.

The best I have found is a fine spatlese riesling from a top-notch German producer. Spatlese is a degree of grape ripeness that usually indicates a mildly sweet wine made from late-harvested grapes. The earlier step on the rung, kabinett, may be a bit too dry; auslese wines may be too sweet. Spatlese is just about right.

As we've noted, turkey can be a bit dry, sometimes even bland. A mildly sweet wine can help offset the qualities, so long as there's enough acidity to keep the palate fresh. That's where German riesling excels.

German wines can be confusing, so it helps to have a guide of sorts. Unless you're buying wine from a famous estate such as Maximin Grunhaus or J. J. Prum, look for the name of a reliable importer. The best in these parts is Terry Theise, whose name on a bottle is a virtual guarantee of quality.

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For pairing with turkey, the most promising region to explore is the Pfalz, where the wines develop a forward spiciness that matches up well with the unsubtle flavors of the Thanksgiving table.

There are other wine-food matches that offer intriguing possibilities for Thanksgiving: Alsace gewurztraminer, a top Beaujolais "cru," maybe even a red Rhone.

But let somebody else make the case for those matchups. I'll stick with my four. Bring on the bird.

Critic's choice

1990 Chateau St. Andre Clairette du Languedoc "Les Frigoulas" ($13). Here is a monumental find. This magnificent white wine from an obscure region of southern France has all the complexity and power of a great white Burgundy at a fraction of the cost. It simply bursts with a spicy, lightly oaky flavor. There's a slightly less expensive "Cuvee Tradition" that's almost as good. A Lang-don/Shiverick selection from Atlantic Wine and Spirits.


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