The ideal wine for Thanksgiving dinner? It's complicated.
Washington: For many of us who love to cook and host on Thanksgiving, one central mystery remains: What to pour? Before I turn to the experts, I’ll offer up three things I do know about wine on this holiday:
1. You don’t want to run out.
2. Opinions vary on what tastes delicious.
3. Do not make yourself crazy by trying to pair individual wines with individual courses because a) there really are no individual courses, b) the variety of flavours on the plate is wide, and c) not everyone is helping themselves to the same foods at the same time.
I like to put out an assortment of bottles and let the wine gods speak to the guests as they like. Josh Wesson, partner and wine director at Suprema Provisions in New York City, confirms my laissez faire attitude.
“Stop fretting over wine-and-food matching,” he says. “Given the wild riot of flavours and textures on the Thanksgiving table, it’s wiser to forgo precise pairings in favour of supple, easy-drinking bottles (colour doesn’t matter) that play well with a wide range of foods.”
Paul Grieco, manager at the New York wine bar Terrior, does think about pairings, but in a loose fashion. “Let’s acknowledge that the foods that generally share space on the Thanksgiving plate, while super yummy, are generally not things we would put together if we were truly being thoughtful about things,” he says. “And by things, I mean ... do they work with the same wine?”
He points out that “a turkey day plate contains bland (turkey), sweet (sweet potato or yams), bitter (some green thing, maybe brussels sprouts), umami (the gravy or the stuffing), sweet and sour (cranberry sauce) and the oddity (whatever family food heirloom finds its way onto an already stuffed plate).”
So. What to drink with all that? Grieco is devoted to riesling, a generally perfumery, acidic white wine, and thinks Thanksgiving dinner is a perfect time to use it. He chooses US wines for this American holiday, recommending rieslings from the coasts, specifically New York State, Washington, Oregon and California.
Wanda Mann, a writer and founder of the wine-lifestyle website The Black Dress Traveler , agrees that the “explosion of savoury and sweet” at Thanksgiving makes it challenging to find one ideal wine. “You can’t go wrong with the tried and true pairing of the Thanksgiving meal with a pinot noir,” she says. One of its charms, she says, “is that it is a lighter bodied red with no aggressive tannins that will compete with the heavy meal.”
The Burgundy region in France is considered the benchmark for pinot noir, she says, but if you’re looking to stay domestic, you can find “superb” pinot noir from Oregon. Sparkling wines should also be on the table, Mann says.
“The right sparkling wine can be served throughout the meal, and a brut (dry) rosé sparkling wine is an elegant and unexpected Thanksgiving pairing,” she says. “The red fruit flavours in the rose will not only pair well with turkey, other meats and sides, but the crispness and lively acidity of these wines cut through the fat.”
Mann also recommends my current favourite sparkling wine, lambrusco. It’s a fizzy red (yes, red!) that is served chilled, from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. “When things get heated around the dinner table, a nice chilled wine can save the day and the meal,” says Mann. “Toss aside old memories of sticky sweet mass-produced lambrusco. Now more than ever you can find beautifully made dry Lambrusco. And that little bit of fizz keeps your palate perky and primed for the next serving of your favourite dish.”
Mann says one trick for finding the right wine for the Thanksgiving meal is to look toward winemaking regions like Spain and France with a rich and varied gastronomic tradition. Grenache is one such wine, ranging in style from fresh to complex, generally “luscious with good acidity that will help your palate avoid fatigue from the many flavours of the turkey day feast.”
And even riesling fan Grieco says “you must have a red wine or there will be a mutiny.” He stays domestic with Rhone-styled wines from the West Coast, such as syrahs or cinsaults, and agrees with Mann that grenaches are also good choices. Alice Feiring, author of “Natural Wine for the People” (Ten Speed Press, 2019), advises: “Look for organic viticulture, and then no additives. Simple.”
With root vegetables, look for acid and earthiness in wine, she says. Seek out wine with savoury, briny and bitter notes. The natural wines coming out of the Finger Lakes and Vermont are excellent choices, Feiring says, as well as high-elevation areas like California’s Sierra Foothills.
She is also a proponent of orange wines, which are whites made like reds so they have tannins. “They’re kind of a fad now, but they’re so good, they won’t go away,” she says. “But if you’ve never had one, you have to forget everything you know about white wine (fruity, intense aromas) and have faith; food-friendly and versatile.”
Talk to your local wine store manager to see what they have in stock. Wesson notes that rich, potent potables can quite literally knock out your guests before they reach the pumpkin pie, so he suggests looking for young wines with good acidity, bright fruit and alcohol levels below 14 per cent. He also recommends choosing something that isn’t too complex (or expensive).
“At this most boisterous of holiday meals, the real stars are the food, friends and family,” he says. “Best to save your precious and pricy bottles for a more intimate gathering and stick to offerings under USD 25 you can buy in quantity.”