The thought of pairing the proper wine with a holiday dinner can strike fear into the heart of the most courageous Thanksgiving cook. More than any other day of the year, the meal is the centerpiece at Thanksgiving. And the variety of dishes…so many different flavors, textures and seasonings… everything from herb-filled stuffing to cranberry sauce to sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. So what is the perfect wine to serve with your Thanksgiving meal?
The long and short answer: There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all Thanksgiving wine. But there are plenty of options and some guidelines that can make choosing wines for your holiday meal virtually stress free.
The first rule of thumb is preference. Remember, the best wines are the ones you like best. So pick a wine varietal you’re familiar with and have enjoyed in the past. If you’re a red wine drinker, you’ll prefer a Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, no matter how well that spicy, off-dry Alsatian Gewürztraminer goes with Grandma’s sage stuffing. And if you prefer whites, you’ll likely find a Shiraz overpowering with turkey.
Another consideration is price. You’re more apt to find pleasing wines in the $18-30 per bottle price range. Higher prices generally mean better quality, although bargains can always be found. My recommendation: Your best meal of the year deserves a decent bottle. It’s the holidays. Live a little! And forget the jug wine. A post-holiday headache is no bargain.
As a rule, light to medium bodied wines with lower tannin levels and less complexity pair better with the wide variety of flavors and textures present in the typical Thanksgiving meal. Included below are some recommendations for both red and white wines. Choose one of each this year, so you can please all your guests.
On the red side, my personal favorite is Beaujolais Nouveau. This light, lower in alcohol red wine represents the first fruits of the harvest and is vinified using a traditional French method called maceration beaujolaise or maceration carbonique. This process transforms the grapes from vine to wine in about 30 days. Beaujolais Nouveau is traditionally released in France on the third Thursday in November, but many American wineries offer their Nouveaux for sale earlier in the month. The Beaujolais Nouveau’s sunny simplicity makes it read like a pleasant sauce for your buttery, rich turkey and all its yummy fixins.
The traditional wine to serve on Turkey Day is Pinot Noir. The reason? Pinot is an ideal middle of the road wine, not too heavy (like a Zinfandel, perhaps) or too light (like the Beaujolais Nouveau), but just agreeable enough to go with any food on the typical Thanksgiving menu. I personally prefer Pinot Noirs with a little bottle age, as younger Pinots can taste too sharp and peppery, not round enough to balance the richness of the typical Thanksgiving meal.
Syrah/Shiraz, another medium-bodied red, works well with holiday fare. Somewhat bolder in intensity and flavor, this traditional Southern Rhone varietal can walk the line between too heavy and too light, providing a pleasant complement to white or dark turkey meat and a complex variety of side dishes, from fresh brussel sprouts to the classic green bean/mushroom soup/crunchy onion casserole.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool lover of big reds, try a bold California Zinfandel. It will read heavier than either the Pinot or Syrah, but will work well with the cornucopia of rich foods on your Thanksgiving plate. A word of caution on those huge, woody California Cabs. There are better choices for your Thanksgiving meal. Too much intensity and/or oak can overpower the flavor of food. If you can’t live without your Cab for even one day, enjoy a glass before dinner as a cocktail.
White wine lovers have a variety of tasty options. The ever-popular Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and light with high acidity and herbaceous flavors that pair beautifully with stuffing and vegetable dishes and balance the richness of high fat meats and gravies.
Riesling fans will love the way this versatile white wine pairs with Thanksgiving fare. Often recommended as a complement to spicy Asian food, Riesling also works well with the zesty flavors present in many holiday dishes. Finished dry or sweet, Riesling can be a real standout and a perfect pairing at your holiday table.
Two less familiar white wines you might want to try are Viognier and Gewürztraminer.
A Northern Rhone varietal, Viognier is rapidly gaining in acceptance, especially with former drinkers of California Chardonnays. The typical Viognier has lower levels of acidity and exhibits floral qualities, flavors of fruits like nectarines and peaches with occasional hints of hazelnut, which can work well with holiday savories.
Gewurztraminer can also be finished dry or sweet, and has a tangy flavor that pairs well with spicy holiday side dishes, as well as a variety of rich desserts.
If you’re set on a single wine to serve on Thanksgiving Day, why not try sparkling? My personal favorite is a dry sparkling rosé. Crisp, light and fruity, a rosé can carry you from cocktails to dessert. If you’re not a rosé fan, stick to champagne. The traditional blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier will work with almost any food.
The last and most important rule for pairing food and wine on Turkey Day is this:
You can’t make a mistake if you pick a wine you enjoy. Remember, Thanksgiving is a time to count your blessings, and if you’re lucky enough to share a holiday meal with the ones you love, you have much to be grateful for.
Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org