The American Thanksgiving: a food lovers favorite holiday. All the family love, gratitude, and joy of the holiday season, with far fewer demands on our time and sanity. We are able to focus almost completely on the meal. The turkey, the trimmings, and in my house, the wine pairings. I know, after all that fuss and planning over the menu, the wine may not be first on your mind. But this year, no excuses. Pairing wine with the legendary Thanksgiving meal is actually quite simple, and may just take your already festive food holiday to the next level.
Pairing wine with turkey and the traditional Thanksgiving meal is surprisingly straightforward and hard to mess up. The turkey will pair just fine with both whites and reds, as long as you select those near the “middle” of their respective categories. The white meat goes well with heartier whites, the dark with lighter-bodied reds. The typical herbs, spices, fats, and marinades we use to prepare turkey result in a flavor profile that stands up to a range of wine profiles that may surprise you.
The perceived challenge is the range of side dishes and the general all-day eating that comes with America’s big meal. Do not let this intimidate you — there are simple strategies for wine pairing throughout the big day. You can certainly select wines for the various phases of the meal, starting lighter with appetizers, medium with dinner, and sweeter with dessert. What may surprise you is you can also opt for a single wine that will work throughout, pairing with everything from your cheese plate to your pumpkin pie.
With all those options in mind, let’s cover a few classic turkey and wine pairings, plus a few general strategies for wine and the big day. I did the homework (and yes, a little sampling) for you to provide recommended bottles in a range of price points and palates. I hope you find a perfect pairing and perhaps something new to enjoy this holiday season. Cheers!
Turkey and Bubbles: Sparkling Wines for Thanksgiving Day
I love sparkling wine for any festive occasion, as I find it immensely drinkable throughout the day. It pairs well with appetizers across the figurative board — cheese plates, seafood platters, savory nibbles alike. For Thanksgiving in particular, I break out the sparkling reds. They kick off the holiday season and pair particularly well with the main event, carrying you from party start to dessert with a single offering. You’ll recall from my sparkling wine post that the bubbles cleanse the palette, a bonus when working your way through those rich Thanksgiving side dishes.
If you go sparkling red, try:
- The Chook ($20), for its balanced berry flavors and a medium body, and general crowd-pleasing flavors
- Shingleback Black Bubbles Sparkling Shiraz ($26), a richer, bold sparkling shiraz that will really carry you from cheese plate to smoky turkey to sweet dessert
A sparkling rosé offers a compromise between the classic pinot noir turkey pairing and the benefits of sparkling wine. I like my rosés super pale, so I recommend the J Brut Rosé, so pale you can barely tell it is pink. A true value at $40, it has the intensity of flavor you find in higher priced French Champagne.
Of course, if you prefer to stick to the classics, there is always Champagne or many Champagne alternatives, discussed here. Try the Mittnacht Cremant D’alsace ($18) for an excellent value in a balanced sparkling white.
The Classic Thanksgiving Turkey and Wine Pairing: Beaujolais
A classic turkey and wine pairing, both for its spot in the middle of the wine intensity range and general crowd-pleasing balance, is Beaujolais Nouveau. It is no coincidence we drink it at Thanksgiving; the French release this wine every year on November 15, meant to be consumed immediately. The seasonal fanfare and great value make it a fun choice for the holiday.
If you are not into Nouveau, Beaujolais Grand Cru and Beaujolais-Villages are equally strong pairing options at alternative price points. This helpful article from Wine Folly explains the differences, but all are dry, herbaceous and floral, but with sweet fruit notes that complement traditional Thanksgiving fruit flavors of cherry and cranberry. It is low alcohol, generally a plus when day drinking. Beaujolais did well in 2009 and 2013, and the New York Times loved 2011, so look for those years regardless of price point.
Here are a few Beaujolais options to try:
- Georges DeBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, a brand that nearly always does well, and usually averages about $13 a bottle
- Pierre-Marie Charmette Brouilly Pierreux, rated very well in the still-available 2015, and as a Grand Cru, averages about $28 bottle
- Domaine Hirsch Beaujolais-Villages 2016, still available and averages $16 for a bottle
More Turkey and Wine Pairings
Turkey (and the accompanying stuffing or dressing) generally does well with whites on the drier side with well-balanced acidity: Sauvignon Blanc, White Burgundy, Pouilly Fuisse, Viognier, Chardonnays with low or no oak, and dry Rieslings. I find Riesling is your best bet, particularly for its compatibility with side dishes. The natural apple, apricot and honey flavors and higher acidity give it a significant pairing edge with dishes like sweet potatoes or herb-filled stuffing.
The reds you select should generally be softer, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Merlot. If you are smoking your turkey or adding comparable flavors, consider a fruit-bomb red Zinfandel. Slowly back away from the big bold Cabernets for this particular meal. In general, regardless of grape, look for high acidity to balance the assault of rich flavor you’re going to experience. A little sweetness and fruit-forwardness works as well, but keep an eye out on the alcohol content, which can go up in parallel. [This has nothing to do with the food, simply family harmony.]
photo used with permission from jas brechtl at allthatsjas.com
My personal choice is Pinot Noir, as it is generally the most crowd-pleasing, budget-friendly, and frankly, hard to mess up from a pairing perspective. You can find great wines in the $15-30 range, and the U.S. had great vintages in 2012-13 offering us plenty of selection in local shops. If you like your Pinot Noir light and delicate, stick with Oregon. If like me you prefer them richer and fruitier, head south into California, or even further afield to Chile and Argentina.
My favorites in this category:
- For fruity, intense red Zinfandels, I like Predator California Old Vine Zinfandel ($17) and Decoy California Zinfandel ($23)
- For lighter, more earthy Pinot Noirs, try Alchemist Oregon Pinot Noir ($30) or the classic Argyle Oregon Pinot Noir ($25)
- You can never go wrong with a Gary Farrell Russian River California Pinot Noir ($40 for the 2014 vintage)
- Our house red, the Estancia California Pinot Noir, is the ultimate value Pinot Noir ($12)
photo via pexels
Something Different: Turkey and Wine Pairing Alternatives
Non-traditional white wines that will work nicely with the Thanksgiving meal are Gewürztraminer, Albariño, Viognier, and Grüner Veltliner, four popular whites in our house. Gewürztraminer is bolder and spicy enough to stand up to the turkey and gravy, bringing out the best in both. Albarino is high acidity, crisp, and pairs well with seafood, making it an excellent choice for seafood-based appetizers or an oyster stuffing. Viognier is similar to Chardonnay, but with a more balanced acidity that will pair better with Thanksgiving dinner, particularly the root vegetables often featured. Grüner Veltliner is similar to Sauvignon Blanc when young, but with a nuttier quality as it ages that offers a complexity I adore.
If you have the type of guests who are up for it, try all four and organize a tasting with a selection from my favorites:
- Dr. Konstantin Frank Gewürztraminer ($19) or the California classic Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer ($20)
- Do Ferreiro Albariño 2014 ($30) and 2014 Alselmo Mendes Expressoes Albariño ($30)
- Penner-Ash Viognier 2015 ($35) and 2016 Cinquante Cinq Viognier ($11)
- 2010 Hirsch Grüner Veltliner Lamm ($49) and the 2016 Bernard Ott Am Berg Grüner Veltliner ($18)
If you are in the mood to try something really different, consider an Old Vine Carignan (pronounced care-in-yen). It has a meaty umami quality that pairs perfectly with the dark meat in turkey. Its fruit forward flavors and spiciness derived from those usually found in baking (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove) means it also pair exceptionally well with traditional American starchy and slightly sweet side dishes. Perhaps because it is lesser known, but really because those mature vines are super-productive, it is really affordable.
These are a bit harder to find, but here are a few to seek out:
- 2015 Domaine De Fontsainte Corbieres Reserve La Demoiselle ($14)
- Kokomo 2014 Carignan Tollini Vineyard ($28)
- Ridge Buchignani Carignane (varies by vintage, 2015 $30, average $37)
photo via pexels
Fried Turkey and Wine Pairing
If you are frying your turkey, stick with the sparkling wine, in particular sparkling Rosé. An American Pinot Noir based sparkler will work particularly well to both complement the turkey flavor and provide the contrast you need to clear the palette. I like the Schramsberg Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend Mirabelle ($30) or the pure Pinot Noir Brut Rosé ($45).
Thanksgiving Dessert and Wine Pairings
It is the holidays, so your guests are more likely to indulge in dessert. It is the perfect time to introduce Port, a Cream Sherry, or Moscato, all perfect with traditional Thanksgiving pies. The sparkling wines from earlier will go perfectly with just about any dessert offering. If you want to try something new, I love Hungarian Tokai wine, similar to Sauternes and a unique treat to mark the season.
photo by sabinevanerp via pixabay
Let’s not forget the Turkey
Need a great roast turkey recipe to go with that delicious wine? Jas over at allthatsjas.com has tried them all, and rounds up all the best techniques you need — before, during and after — for that golden, crispy skin and juicy meat we love so much. It is the recipe you need this Thanksgiving to make sure that turkey is ready to pair with your wine of choice.
Looking to learn more about wine and food pairings? My go-to guide is winefolly.com, and their Essential Guide to Wine available at amazon or your favorite book retailer. Of course, follow me on Facebook and Pinterest and for more tips and tricks for entertaining and wine pairing all year long.
Stressed about holiday planning? Don’t be! Join The Food Brood and a group of savvy international food bloggers during the entire month of November as we discuss survival strategies for the holiday season. We’ll cover tips to keep you on budget, healthy, and most of all, sane, as we navigate this hectic time of year. Hope to see you in our Facebook group Smart Meals for Busy Cooks.