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Why Lodi's Cinsaut may be the single finest wine for Thanksgiving tables

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Are you ready for a 100-millionth article on wines for Thanksgiving? We like to think ours is special because, well, we recommend Lodi-grown wines. Which tends to mean two different things:

  1. Exceptional value, a byproduct of sourcing from the country's largest winegrowing region.

  2. Fruit-forward qualities, which are byproducts of the region's steady Mediterranean climate and largely sandy loam soils (at least half of Lodi's grapes are grown in alluvium laid down over thousands of years in the Mokelumne River watershed).

"Fruit-forward" gives any wine a huge leg up when it comes to Thanksgiving. Of course, we are talking mostly about the grand old tradition of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry, buttery mashed potatoes, and vegetable casseroles—the gustatory cacophony of foods, enjoyed with cherished family and friends, that we Americans look forward to each year.

Of course, for many of us, Thanksgiving is also about sweet-salty baked ham, seasonal crab, roast beef or lamb, or even imaginative salads or tofurky—whatever floats your boat.

This means the ideal wines always tend to be wines that are either round or light and also aromatic and flavorful with fruit qualities.

Beaujolais from France, for instance, is often cited as the best red wine for Thanksgiving dishes. Why? Because these are light, fruity red wines that you can practically drink like water. Sounds good to me!

Well, Beaujolais is in France and is made from a grape called Gamay noir, which is virtually nonexistent in California (you can find some delicious Gamay reds in Oregon and British Columbia).

In Lodi, however, we have the classic Southern French grape known as Cinsaut. It was Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passalacqua whom I first heard the quip, "Cinsaut reminds me of cru Beaujolais"—that is, a red wine that resembles wines coming from the Beaujolais region's finest villages; which, while round and fruity like typical Beaujolais, are also a little deeper in flavor than typical Beaujolais.

No doubt, Cinsaut in Lodi reminds Passalacqua of higher quality Beaujolais because here in Lodi's high-vigor soils the vine produces fruit as large and plump as table grapes, which results in pillowy soft tannin reds. The aromas of flavors of Cinsaut in Lodi, however, go far, far beyond even the finest Beaujolais: redolent of fruit suggesting strawberry, cherry or raspberry, rhubarb, occasionally pomegranate or cranberry, and almost always, pungent kitchen spice aromas (clove, black pepper, cardamom, occasionally mace or cinnamon).

Now, think of these fascinatingly spicy, gushy sensory qualities in the context of multi-herb stuffing, spiced cranberry, or the occasional Cajun spices often lavished in our Thanksgiving meals. Case closed.

In Lodi, most brands of Cinsaut are sourced from one of two vineyards:

  • Bechthold Vineyard, consisting of own-rooted ancient vines planted in 1886 (Lodi's oldest, as it was, continuously farmed block) in the heart of the region's historic Mokelumne River AVA.

  • Sprague Family Vineyard, much newer, trellised vines planted in 2017 in the Clements Hills AVA.

Here's the thing: both vineyards produce quintessential style Cinsaut reds—soft in tannin, super spicy, and chubby as a November turkey. Proof that fulfillment of this particular grape's varietal character in Lodi has more to do with terroir (i.e., "sense of place") than it does the age of the vine; although Bechthold Vineyard is certainly considered a national treasure (re our 2014 post, Bechthold Vineyard is named California's "Vineyard of the Year").

A quick rundown on the brands and styles of Lodi Cinsaut:

Turley Wine Cellars—Partial whole berry/cluster fermentation rendering plush, bright, zesty spiced fruit qualities that, not coincidentally, strikingly recall the finest crus Beaujolais.

Markus Wine Cellar—Bottled as "Ancient Blocks Cinsaut" and is different from the classic Turley iteration because it is just 75% Cinsaut (the current vintage, 2020, has 20% Zinfandel/5% Petite Sirah) as it is strikingly similar because of the way it positively exudes holiday spices and upbeat fragrances of baking fresh berry pies.

Michael David Winery—While a riper, fuller-bodied style of Bechthold (just topping 14% ABV), this winery (which also farms the Bechthold Vineyard) captures a pure essence of the spicy strawberry-rhubarb pie-like qualities of the grape.

Iconic "Myriad"—A micro-brand sourcing from the Sprague Family, notable because it rings with the varietal's spiced fruit perfume with an ultra-soft Beaujolais Nouveau-like ease resulting almost entirely from the French style of carbonic maceration (involving whole berry intra-cellular fermentation under inert conditions).

Perlegos Family—The latest homegrown Lodi brand, sourcing from Sprague Family; a 20% carbonic maceration style couching the sumptuously spiced strawberry/pomegranate fruit in lower alcohol (12.9%), zesty acid palate-feel.

Christopher Cellars—Another small Lodi brand, similar to the Perlegos in its zesty-edged, contemporary style medium body (just 12.2% alcohol), coming across as more like spiced cranberry and blueberry pie and just the faintest tinge of neutral French oak (like a drop of vanilla in airy cream).

McCay Cellars—Championing the natural, native yeast-fermented style of the grape grown in Bechthold Vineyard; organic, almost raw, naked aromas of kitchen spices and red fruit, soft yet almost toothsome in its unfettered layering on the palate.

Onesta Wines—This brand, owned by Jillian Johnson, always swings for the fences with as intense and lively a style of Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut as you can find.

Ser Winery—Winemaker/owner Nicole Walsh's iteration of Bechthold is a joyously aromatic bundle of black pepper, peppermint, clove, and allspice, lighting up cranberry/raspberry-like fruit in a lightly tart, tingly, mouth-watering medium-full body.

Fields Family Wines—Not just another native yeast style of Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut; this tiny homegrown brand is consistently precise in its perfumed, spicy, finely delineated soft and silken textured style.

Estate Crush—While there tends to be a quieter note in the nose of this Bechthold-grown Cinsaut, on the palate the spiced holiday berry fruit profile is as lush and explosive as any brand.

Jessie's Grove—The house style is to age Bechthold-grown Cinsaut considerably longer in neutral barrels than any other wineries, producing a smoother, leaner style that is still zesty and brightly scented in the varietal's classic kitchen spiced profile.

There are other excellent brands of Lodi-grown Cinsaut that are possible to be found, although they tend to be sold out to eager mailing list customers well before the yearly holiday season. These include Sandlands (Passalacqua's personal brand), Marchelle (by winemaker/owner Greg La Follette, famed for raw, enigmatic styles), Two Shepherds, and BIRICHINO.

Other soft and sumptuous spice varietals

In a pinch, there are certainly other Lodi-grown "spice" varietals—that is, red wines made from grapes that also have an intrinsic kitchen spice (notably black pepper)—that would do just fine on your Thanksgiving table.

Since we are talking about Lodi-grown styles of these grapes, our recommended bottlings tend to be soft enough in tannin and exuberant enough in fruit to fulfill the food versatility required in a wine suitable for Thanksgiving. More holiday ideas:

Have a safe and joyous holiday season!

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s He also contributes editorial to The Tasting Panel magazine and crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media.

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