Every year before Thanksgiving I start receiving phone calls and emails all asking the same thing, “What wine should I buy for Thanksgiving dinner?”
Thanksgiving dinner may appear daunting at first to pair wine with. It includes a meat people don’t usually eat for dinner (a whole roast turkey) and combines it with numerous different side dishes that can be sweet (cranberry sauce) and savory (gravy). All of these potential perceived difficulties actually make it a very versatile wine pairing holiday and by following the principles below you and your guests will be still be talking about the dinner next year.
Your family and guests should not have an empty glass before the start of the meal. Thanksgiving is a celebration and what better way to start a celebration than with sparkling wine or as I call them bubbles. Sparkling wine will not only set the tone for the evening but it will also get everyone’s palates stimulated. Bubbles does not mean only Champagne. We can start off with sparkling wine from anywhere. A sparkling rosé would be a great way to start since it’s pretty and will match the fall colors. I would choose a dry sparkling wine since you will have a lot more sugar as your meal progresses. Everyone should have a glass or two to put them in the party mood before moving on to the main courses.
The Main Event
The main event is where you will showcase your cooking and wine knowledge. I’ve divided this section into two parts. The first is for entry level wine drinkers and the second is for more experienced oenophiles (wine connoisseurs). Either way, I recommend having two wines on the table. People usually only have one glass on the table with dinner but I recommend two. It allows you the opportunity to try different pairings at once and to juxtapose the flavors with each other. Try it at Thanksgiving, I promise your guest will remember it. You might even start having multiple glasses on more occasions.
Entry Level Wine Drinkers
For entry level wine drinkers I recommend approachable wines that can stand up to the bold flavors on the plate. I recommend an off dry Riesling. Rieslings are often thought of as very sweet but they actually come in all levels of sweetness. An off dry Riesling has a slight sweetness and a great acidity. The acidity is often what makes a good food wine by refreshing the palate. An off dry Riesling will have a lovely floral note, delicate sweetness, mild citrus fruit flavors, and will be palate cleansing. An off dry Riesling will have enough sweetness to compliment the cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, and the stuffing but it will also have enough acidity to be refreshing after a bite of turkey with gravy.
The second wine I recommend having on the table is a Zinfandel. This red varietal has flavors of baking spices, dark berry jam, and an underlying pepper spice. The tannins, although very subtle, are still there and will elevate the turkey flavor without drowning it out. Your guest will really enjoy going back and forth between a mildly sweet and acidic riesling and a bold jammy Zinfandel. Nearly any California Zinfandel will be good but I think the bolder Zinfandels will keep your guests anticipating next year’s Thanksgiving.
Experienced Wine Drinkers
More experienced wine drinkers will appreciate aromatic whites that compliment the meal and have their own complexity. I recommend trying a Gewürztraminer with dinner. Gewürztraminer has great floral notes and a delicate sweetness similar to an off dry Riesling but it has an added complexity to it. When compared to Riesling, Gewürztraminer has more spice flavors, tropical instead of citrus fruit, and less acidity. The inherent spiciness, acidity, and tropical notes of Gewürztraminer will highlight all the subtleties of the food prepared.
In addition to a Gewürztraminer, a Pinot Noir with dinner will really make it a memorable evening. Pinot Noir is one of the lightest red wines available. Pinot Noir is a softer red with light tannins. Pinot Noir is elegant, delicate, and well rounded. It will complement everything you have on the table. You can choose either and old world or a new world Pinot Noir (What is Old World and New World?). A new world Pinot Noir will have more fruit flavors with strawberry, cherry, and raspberry flavors. An old world Pinot Noir (plus Willamette Valley, Oregon Pinot Noir), will have more earthy flavors. Some people describe the flavor as “barnyard”. Keep in mind when choosing a Pinot Noir for dinner that Pinot Noir is one of the most expensive wines to make so it is very difficult to find one for less than $20 per bottle. For my Thanksgiving dinner I chose a Pinot Noir from Mendelson Vineyards in California. It is old world style and the earthiness of the wine will highlight the earthiness of the roasted fall vegetables that I love. Remember, as long as there is red and white on the table it is all gravy. Pun intended 🙂
What About Ham?
Some people have ham with Thanksgiving dinner either instead of or along with the turkey. Since ham can be either sweet or savory it will change what we decide to pair with it. If it is a sweet ham, such as a honey baked ham, then the off-dry Riesling or the Gewürztraminer will pair well. If it is a savory ham then an old world Pinot Noir will probably be best. An old world Pinot Noir will highlight the savoriness of the ham, add some earthiness, and have enough acidity to be refreshing.
Since you are going to be stuffed and hungover the next day anyways, you should have a dessert wine. When most people think about dessert wine, they think of Port. We are going to do something different. Thanksgiving dessert involves pumpkin pies, pecan pies, and fruity desserts. I recommend a Madeira or Sherry for thanksgiving dinner. Both of these fortified wines have baking spices, high alcohol, and a richness that will end the meal on a high note.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I have used the suggestions outlined above to craft food and wine pairings that my guests talk about years later. I hope your Thanksgiving goes as well as mine. Please let me know if the comments below how the wine pairings work out with your dinner.