Not withstanding the fact that our fleshy fowl friend is the star of one of our most iconic meals, Thanksgiving dinner can be a delightful sensory experience given its large range of flavors and aromas beckoning for delicious wine pairings. Even though there are no truly right or wrong wine selections as all of our palates differ, exploring the sensory pleasures of a good pairing can elevate your Thanksgiving meal far above the endearing yet sometimes menial conversations around the dinner table. If this is something that piques your interest, read on and have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Although there are many approaches to pair food and wine, to tackle such a broad range of offerings that might appear at your Thanksgiving dinner table, I’d like to approach the pairing from the wine perspective and then describe the food for which it pairs well:
Bubbly: Sparkling wines are of the most versatile wines to pair with food. On Thanksgiving Day, they can be served during the initial grazing period where guests arrive and graze the cheese plates, deviled eggs, and spinach artichoke dip. If you are not ready to put down your bubbly, pour another glass and dig into the fried turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, even the sweet potato casserole (unless covered in marshmallows). There other wines that may hit the spot if it’s a marshmallow-covered casserole. If you want to push the envelope, grab a sparkling rosé at the sweeter end of Extra Dry (near 17 grams RS) to Demi-Sec (preferably no more than 40 grams RS) and pair it with a slice of pumpkin pie. The other pairings suggested above, I generally prefer Brut (up to 12 grams RS). Although my preference is generally Champagne, some crémants made outside of the Champagne region hit the mark perfectly and, in many cases, for a much lower price tag. There are also very good domestic sparkling wines made in the same method as Champagne and, as a matter of fact, there are sparkling wines made all over the world that are now exceeding expectations of quality.
White Wine: Riesling is a fantastic choice for Thanksgiving dinner. Rieslings are lower in alcohol than most still wines, are very bright in acidity to balance the richness of many Thanksgiving dishes, and, if selected, a Riesling containing a touch of residual sugar can pair with your savory dishes as well as those with sweetness like sweet potato casserole smothered in brown sugar, maple syrup and/or marshmallows. Although excellent Rieslings are now being produced worldwide, I still prefer German and would suggest a Kabinett or Spätlése. Sauvignon Blanc lovers can certainly include this wine on their Thanksgiving table as it’s super bright acidity will balance many of the heavier dishes and the green notes, particularly in those of New Zealand, can pair magically with some of your green dishes such as green bean casserole or spinach artichoke dip. If you’re not a fan of the ‘green’ dishes, my heart always has a soft spot for the Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs from either Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. Chardonnay can be a little tricky for this dinner, particularly if your palate prefers oaked Chardonnays. If Chardonnay is your grape of choice, I would highly recommend going the unoaked route. Chardonnay can pair very well with many cream sauce-based dishes you’ll find on the Thanksgiving dinner table, not to mention all the bread and butter. There are very nice unoaked Chardonnays coming out of California these days, but, again for me, I can’t stay away from Burgundy. Chablis makes a lovely addition to the Thanksgiving table!
Red Wine: Pinot Noir is widely considered the quintessential Thanksgiving Dinner wine and for good reason. It’s light-to-medium body, bright acidity, and medium alcohol make it probably the most food-friendly and versatile red grape of them all when it comes to pairing. As long as you stay away from heavily oaked offerings, you can hardly miss when bringing any Pinot Noir. Although Burgundy is again my go-to when drinking Pinot, you might find that a fruit-forward wine from Oregon, California or New Zealand shines brighter at this meal due to their ability to stand up to spicy, cheesy or super saucy dishes you may encounter on this day. Gamay I have found to be the hidden gem of red grapes that can knock it out of the park at the Thanksgiving Dinner table. It is a common misconception that all Beaujolais is the ‘fruit punch’ of red wines due to the popularity of the Nouveau phenomenon that occurs at the end of every November. The tradition is actually storied and meant to celebrate the year’s harvest. The wines, known as Beaujolais Nouveau, are made from the current year’s harvest and are meant to drink within a month of release. These wines are meant more for drinking in quantities at a party instead of pairing with food or analyzed for their nuances. Beaujolais Cru, on the other hand, are much more expressive, elegant and, as you might guess, food-friendly. In fact, they share many characteristics with wines made from Gamay’s sister grape, Pinot Noir. I’ve certainly experienced magical moments at the Thanksgiving dinner table pairing Beaujolais Cru wines, particularly when you take a bite of turkey that has been partially and mildly soaked in cranberry sauce and drizzled on with gravy. If you’re interested in the opportunity for a magic moment, I highly recommend bringing a Beaujolais from the villages of Broiully, Fleurie, and especially Morgon.
Rhone Blends can be delicious options as well, particularly with stuffing. If a more traditional stuffing is expected, I would recommend a Southern Rhone Valley blend from Chateauneuf-da-Pape, for example. However, if your favorite dressing/stuffing recipe includes a spicy element, you might have a better match with a more fruit-forward Syrah or Rhone blend from the New World such as California or Australia. Again, I would recommend shying away from overly oaked wines as they tend to pair less well with your Thanksgiving favorites. Save those for pre or post-meal cocktail hour and enjoy!
Dessert Wine: There are many lovely dessert wines that can pair with your Thanksgiving meal, including Canadian ice wine, Hungarian Tokaji, or riper Riesling class wines such as Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. All of these wines pair well with a myriad of desserts that will tantalize your palate. In addition, bringing one of these wines will gain you ‘wine nerd’ points from the crowd if you are so interested. With that being said, if you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to pair a Sauternes with the most classic of Thanksgiving desserts, pumpkin and/or pecan pie. The magic is in the honey-soaked dried fruit flavors and aromas that come mostly from the beneficial botrytis fungus or noble rot that appears to grow consistently only in this small area of Bordeaux, France.
I hope you find these tips helpful and have a Happy Thanksgiving!