|Above: The Thanksgiving dinner is warm but modern, and flawlessly elegant.|
|Thanksgiving Wine Matching Guide|
|Dining Out on Thanksgiving|
|Harvey Steiman's Food and Wine Recipes|
Berkshire County is an American classic, a rolling New England landscape dotted with clapboard farmhouses, white steeples and little towns with Rockwellian main streets. Indeed, this lovely corner of western Massachusetts is where Norman Rockwell lived and painted, and much of it still looks like the innocent world he depicted.
Once a "cottage" lightly used by one Georgie Cook, daughter of financier Henry Cook, and her husband, Count Carlos de Heredia of Spain, the Wheatleigh can now host up to 48 people in the guest rooms and 82 in the dining rooms and eat-in library. The suave, understated decor celebrates the dramatic, high-ceilinged interior and the natural light that courses through -- a stark contrast to the architectural excess favored by the count.
In the restaurant, chef Peter Platt's menu is similarly stylish; he describes it as "modern American" based on French technique. It's worldly, but never trendy. "Our guests aren't coming here for that," Platt explains. "The cuisine is very special, but it's not screaming off the table. It's meant to fit in with the rest of the building and the surroundings." Platt, who learned his craft at the Parker House Hotel in Boston under the guidance of Lydia Shire and Jasper White, resists being identified as a New England-style chef. He uses ingredients from all over the globe.
But make no mistake about it: They take turkey, stuffing and pie seriously here. On Thanksgiving Day, the menu is traditional -- that is, if you're not counting all the luxurious touches that few New Englanders of Rockwell's day could even have dreamed of. Platt may start with warm Maine oysters with Champagne mousseline, then move on to caviar and salmon on blini, topped with Meyer lemon crème fraîche. Moulard duck foie gras will be in evidence; past presentations have included quince chutney in a pomegranate reduction over truffled lentil salad and toasted brioche. All of these dishes precede the bird. Between courses, there will be artistic little surprise dishes and a palate-cleansing sorbet.
But Wheatleigh guests find plenty of options on the restaurant's wine list, winner of Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence. The 530 selections emphasize France and California, with some interesting offerings from Italy and Australia. Strong points among white wines include California Chardonnay, with hard-to-find wines from Lewis Cellars and Kistler, and white Burgundies, including a vertical of Corton-Charlemagne from Louis Latour back to 1989. The reds show good depth, such as seven vintages of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection (to 1989) and Chateau Montelena (to 1984), along with classified Bordeaux into the 1970s.
For help matching wines to this Thanksgiving menu, we turned to three Frenchmen: 42-year-old general manager François Thomas, veteran of the Paris boutique Hotel Montalembert; restaurant manager Guillaume Colombet, 32; and sommelier Nicolas Baudic, 30. These proper fellows, who come to work every day in impeccable black suits, exhibit the kind of knowledge of and passion for French wine that one expects from top-shelf European hospitality professionals. Less typical is their intense interest in the American wines that constitute half of Wheatleigh's list. "There are so many good surprises here," enthused Baudic, who began working in the United States for the first time early this year.
They brought out as many French as American bottles to try with the dishes Platt prepared for Wine Spectator. The tasting was a face-off of sorts, but no one was feeling particularly competitive. The party, which included the hungry chef, shed its formality as eating and drinking proceeded. The men dined with relish in a beautiful portico, walled entirely in glass, where they usually serve others. "You get on your knees to your girlfriend here," exulted Baudic, gesturing at the spectacular mountain view out the windows, "You get out the ring, and you are the winner. She cannot say no!"
The pumpkin soup proved the most difficult dish to match with wine, primarily because it's made with plenty of cream, butter and fresh ginger. The fig quenelles also contain cream, plus a little dark rum. Thick and spicy, the soup ravaged two powerful whites: Olivier Leflaive Frères Meursault 1995 (90, $41; dollar figures refer to release prices) and Jordan Chardonnay Sonoma County 1998. "You need something even bigger and more powerful here," suggested Colombet, knitting his brow. "Unfortunately that is something we don't know how to do in France." They settled on the bold, complex Lewis Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 1997 (92, $39), and assigned it the role of aperitif, to be enjoyed before and after the soup, not with it. And they pointed out that in France one doesn't normally drink wine with soup, anyway. "It's a liquid, it's hot; it takes your whole palate and takes a long time to disappear," admonished Colombet.
That Platt's turkey and stuffing would be best with Pinot Noir was obvious to this experienced group; still, it was unclear just which Pinot on Wheatleigh's list would pair best with this full-flavored, free-range bird from Stone Church Farm, a Hudson Valley producer favored by top Berkshires chefs. The stuffing, a buttery mélange of pears, chestnuts, sausage, sage and country bread, and the liberally truffled giblet gravy are ultralush. A soft and elegant Burgundy, Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune Grèves Vigne de l'Enfant Jésus 1995 (86, $28), proved too delicate, and a Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Oregon 1998 (90, $40) held up only a little better. The bright and easygoing Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley La Bauge Au-dessus 1998 (85, $25) was completely beguiling with this food, however, and even had enough pepper and spice to blend well with the compote, which is front-loaded with citrus -- those kumquats, plus orange, lemon and lime.
A spicy, ripe Steele Zinfandel Mendocino Pacini Vineyard 1998 (90, $18) was opened to broaden the competition, and it performed well with everything except the light breast meat. "You could do this if you really enjoy this sort of wine, though," observed Platt, who was really enjoying it. For those who prefer white wine with Thanksgiving turkey, the tasters chose the Leflaive Meursault that they had tried with the soup. It was structured and full-blown enough to take on these all-American flavors, but not too powerful, as the other whites were, to go well with white meat.
The tart, made with apples purchased from a local orchard, is a far lighter dessert than the standard spice-laden holiday pie. Crème fraîche ice cream and apple-cider syrup give it tang and dimension. But the dessert did nothing for the richly perfumed Château Suduiraut Sauternes 1995 (90, $45). "Have this with foie gras," advised Colombet, turning to his first choice, a honeyed, butterscotch-yellow Steele Late Harvest Chardonnay Mendocino DuPratt Vineyard 1993. Though not nearly as aromatic as the Sauternes, it was leaner and fruitier. "Smell it," Colombet instructed. "Apples, no? A perfect match!" Like cider, perhaps? "I knew it," Thomas said again, pleased with his judgment, and the resources of his list. And so three out of the four chosen are domestic -- American wines for this most American meal. The French ringer, like Lafayette, was a welcome addition to the cause.
Hawthorne Road, Lenox, MA 08888
Telephone (413) 637-0610
Web site www.wheatleigh.com
Best of Award of Excellence
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