What wine goes with turkey? Many do, but in choosing the right Thanksgiving wine, that's not the right question.
But it is what people ask. I know this because I worked at a large newspaper and we got that question over and over from readers. Turkey, by itself, is quite easy to pair with wine: I would happily drink any wine I like with a plate of plain roast turkey.
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However, when you surround that bland wine-friendly meat with cranberry sauce, oyster stuffing, manicotti, sweet potato casserole, Jello salad, sauerkraut, and so on – it's a wine-pairing challenge to say the least.
There are two ways to respond. One is to drink whatever you like and not care about the wine pairing. This is pretty good strategy and I don't want to talk you out of it, but I will point out that your prestigious wines won't be at their best with sweet stuff.
The other solution is to look for wines that are better pairings than others. Here, I can help.
But first, ask yourself, how many bottles will you open? And how good do you want them to be?
In non-pandemic years I would have dinner with 15 or more family and friends. I would bring a case of wine, open them all, and let people choose what they wanted. I also devised strategies to hide the two or three wines I most wanted to drink myself. I used expensive wines I didn't really want as lures: "This wine costs $80" was a great way to get people to fill their glasses with it while I could quietly pour myself an affordable wine I wanted to spend the evening with. That strategy was planned around having a lot of wine, and not needing all of it to be great, or to be good with Brussels sprouts and candied yams.
This year I'll be sheltering in place with my wife. We might open two bottles, possibly even three, but we might not even finish one. So I'll want my wine choices to be both outstanding on their own (I have a lot to be thankful for in this difficult year) AND decent food pairings.
Here's what I recommend if you do care about Thanksgiving wine pairing.
Sparkling wine: This is my number one go-to for all difficult pairings. Bubblies are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than most still wines. Low alcohol helps keep you going during a lengthy meal, and you will need acidity to wash down the gravy. Moreover, most sparkling wines have a little residual sugar. With this meal, a little sweetness in wine is your friend. Leave the zero dosage wines behind for the weekend when you dine on seafood and regret.
Rosé: This is a nice compromise between the seasonal desire to drink red wine and the fact that most of the Thanksgiving menu is better with white.
Aromatic whites: It's hard to compete with the riot of color and flavor on your plate and less aromatic whites like Chardonnay – a terrific pairing for plain turkey – are generally overwhelmed by the side dishes. Riesling and Gewürztraminer are the best-known in this category, and they are good choices. Loureiro or Alvarinho from Portugal's Vinho Verde region would be excellent. If you have some Moscato sitting around, this is a good time to open it, especially if you love the sweeter side dishes. One of the best Thanksgiving pairings I ever found was a box of cheap California white wine blend from a big wine company that I tasted for a box-wine story; the winemaker used a huge proportion of aromatic whites. Yes, I very happily drank boxed wine on our foremost food holiday. Don't faint.
Cru Beaujolais: Thanksgiving was a major driver of Beaujolais Nouveau's popularity in the US. It's cheap, it's appealing to people who don't know much about wine, and it's actually a pretty good pairing, because it's juicy and very low in tannin. If you're reading this article, though, you have graduated from Nouveau. Light reds are a less difficult pairing than fuller-bodied reds, and there aren't many wines much lighter than Beaujolais, though if you have a País from Chile you might give it a shot.
Pinot Noir: The theme here is versatile wines that go with a lot of things, and that's Pinot.
Zinfandel: If you want to celebrate the American nature of the holiday, do so with this grape that California made famous (though it's originally from Croatia.) It's juicy and low in tannin, so it works better than more-tannic reds.
Norton: I would be remiss if I didn't mention America's finest native grape. North America has no native vinifera grapes, but we do have hybrids and Norton is the best of them. Also, I believe in buying local and if you're not on the West Coast, you may have a Norton producer in your state. Many producers abuse this variety with too much oak so look for a winemaker with a light touch.
Cabernet Sauvignon: I would also be remiss if I didn't say that the Cabernets I bring to the big-group dinners are always popular, whether or not they are good pairings. And I've had a glass or two of Cab myself. I tend to have it with seconds, because if I go back for more, I usually eschew the sweet sides and have a little more turkey, gravy and stuffing. Cab's not bad with that. Besides, sparkling wine is my opener for this meal – "Hey, how are you, great to see you, have some bubbly!" – and Cabernet is my closer. "You're leaving so soon? Yes, the traffic is awful. Drive safely! Take care! See you next year!" (Hey, let's open that Screaming Eagle now.)