There is only a week remaining until one of the most important events on the food/wine pairing calendar! I have always looked forward to this time of year, and when I was a wine retailer it was especially invigorating, because sales were excellent and it was fun to get excited (and get customers excited) about wines for the holidays. Time to spread the joy once more!
Dealing with Thanksgiving Food
The flavors of the foods on the Thanksgiving table are so disjointed that one would almost be better off having a companion drink for each dish rather than a single libation. Or just have water (which is asinine unless alcoholism is a factor, so we'll set THAT idea aside). Back to the food and what's often on the table...turkey (relatively bland); stuffing (rich taste made all the more intense if sausage or oysters are added); green vegetables (green beans are the norm at my house, typically hard on wine); sweet potatoes (rich flavor and welcoming of many wines); cranberry sauce (exuberant flavor, not all that wine friendly); and these are just the basics! Obviously there are too many dishes to even consider multiple wine pairings, so let's look at this a bit more nonchalantly: if you want to taste your drink with your feast, you'll need something with bold flavor. If you want to taste your feast with your drink, you'll need something with some grace. My favorite wines with Thanksgiving are not-necessarily full-bodied, but are somewhat warming, even if normally served cold.
An Opening Consideration
Let's go ahead and eliminate big, fat, oaky wines (this means Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in their typical guises). Heavy oak treatment generally inhibits a wine's utility with food. There are obviously some Chardonnays and Cabernets Sauvignon that would work fine with Thanksgiving fare, but these will be out of the ordinary. Wines with other stylistic extremes like those with high alcohol levels are fine (as long as they are not too much about themselves (i.e., like the overripe swamp juice out of Australia)), as are those with low alcohol (so long as they still have vivid character). Wines intended for the Thanksgiving table should also have enough zip to pull through the fats in the food, but not so much that your mouth puckers (nor should they be so devoid of "zip" that they seem flabby).
If any of the following suggestions make you think, "What is that wine?", "How can I find that?", or "Now I'm even more confused!", then you should talk to your local retailer. They can help you find the best option for you.
Here are some of my favorite wines for Thanksgiving:
How can you go wrong with rosé? The answer is, YOU CAN'T!!!! If you have any left over from summer, now is the time to drink it, and you'll be glad you did. I particularly like rosés made of Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon (here's a good place for Cab Sauv!). Rosés from the Sancerre region of France's Loire Valley are exceptionally good, as are the famous rosés of the Rhone Valley's Tavel region. I just tried a rosé from Oregon--the Big Fire Rosé from R. Stuart that would be perfect.
The white wines I am particularly drawn to for Thanksgiving include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Grüner Veltliner, but there are many others that I find just as scintillating. Gewürztraminer is a mighty, intensely aromatic wine and it can be like a warm blanket for your palate. In my retail days, I sold more Gewurz at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year because it is so wonderful with the feast. As for Riesling, if you choose off-dry, I prefer Spätlese or Auslese in ripeness, but there are many Kabinett-level wines that can have just as much depth (this is where you'd ask your retailer). If you want a dry Riesling, a big serious wine from a great growing site works best, and usually these wines get better and better with aeration, so if you don't finish it, drink the rest the next day (there's hardly a more soul-stirring experience than this). Grüner Veltliner is glorious here, and you'll be happy you tried it, because it has the staying power to work with the food (surprisingly seamlessly across the table), and is qualitatively superior to it's peers at a similar price point.
I'll also be drinking some Zinfandel. Skip the White Zinfandel, and go for Red. Some like to point out that this is "America's Grape" and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving? I like to point out that it is genetically identical to European grapes with names like Plavac Mali and Primitivo, so let's drink it for it's merit, shall we? And it has plenty of merit: this year I'll be drinking the Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel, and I drank the 2002 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel last year and loved it. A well-made Red Zin has good balance of acidity and fruit and pulls so much of the food on your plate together that it is in the same league as the whites listed above for harmonious food:wine rapport. Another option--a sensational one at that--is Grenache. I like it in the form that is found in the Rhone Valley regions of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. These velvety wines are so gratifying and emotive that they'll make you think of home, and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving?
For some other suggestions, go to the Wine Pairing Search and look under "Turkey"
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