Wines to Pair with Thanksgiving Dinner

So, when I woke up yesterday, it was April. And now, it’s nearly Halloween. Shortly Thanksgiving will be upon us. And there are only 61 shopping days until Christmas.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the holiday season.

Cue the frenzied masses of holiday shoppers, the chirpy Christmas music in every store, obnoxious light displays and every other sort of rampant consumerism holiday cheer.

And also, the food. THE FOOD. It’s really what we all live for around these times. Good food shared with friends and family. That, or we’re all stressed-out-disasters and just eating our feelings now that we have a legitimate excuse to binge. Whatever works.

With food also comes the wine, and invariably some stress about how to pair it with 15 different dishes and please 15 different palates, all owned by people who like wine, don’t like wine, thought wine came exclusively in jugs, and others who would prefer to just drink a lot of wine to cope with all the family time.

The first thing to remember when pairing wines around the holidays is that – well, it’s a holiday. You should drink what you want, and, most importantly, what keeps the peace. If Grandma wants to pair her cream sherry with asparagus, so be it. If your cousin brought a magnum of Yellow Tail but just can’t wait to try Auntie’s giant jug of Gallo (because, so fancy!), then maybe just buy a good bottle for yourself and keep it under the table, next to your chair. It’s really all about making sure everyone wins, right?

In the meantime, there are a few benchmark wines you can count on to pair well with traditional Thanksgiving fare – turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and so on.

I generally like to offer three styles of wine at Thanksgiving – a sparkling, a white and a red – both to give people options, and to accommodate the variety of foods present at the table. Below are some options.

Sparkling Aperitifs

I serve these before the meal, or as the meal is being served. It’s a refreshing way to open the palate, and will also pair well with the food. And bubbles are always a fun and easy way to start the meal (or break the ice!).

Riesling Sekt

Sekt is a German sparkling wine with a little more body than Cava or Prosecco. It has subtle flavors of fruit but can hold its own with food. This is my pick for my Thanksgiving table. Retails for around $20. Serve well chilled.

Prosecco or Cava

Prosecco (Italian sparkling) or a Cava (Spanish sparkling) also work for holiday pairing. They’ll be slightly lighter in body than the Sekt, but will still get the job done. You can find both of these in dry or sweeter styles. I prefer dry, which is light on the palate but still has a little bit of fruit to warm up your taste buds. Retails over a range of prices, $10-$30. Serve well chilled.

White Wines

In pairing white wines with Thanksgiving meals, I tend toward the medium to full bodied varietals – wines that will hold their own with a variety of foods. I wouldn’t recommend serving Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, or any other light bodied, delicate white wines, as they are likely to be overshadowed by things like gravy or cranberry sauce. Instead, try one (or two, or three!) of the following:

Riesling 

Riesling is my go-to for Thanksgiving pairing. This wine comes in all sorts of styles to meet the needs of everyone’s palate, and the wine’s high acidity assures that it will pair well with food. My first pick would be a lush Alsatian Riesling by Trimbach or Humbrecht. Alsatian Rieslings are my favorite for their full and dry body, spicy fruit and lingering finish.

If you’re looking for something a little sweeter, try German Rieslings from the Mosel Valley or Pfalz (say like “Falls”). They are lighter bodied than wines from Alsace, and generally have a little more sweetness. When purchasing Riesling, be sure you’re getting the level of sweetness you want. For German wines, this should be indicated on the label by the following words:

Trocken means dry.

Halbtrocken means half dry.

Kabinett means light bodied and slightly fruity/sweet, but can also be dry

Spätlese (shpat-lace-ay) is fuller bodied than Kabinett and can be fruity/sweet

Auslese (owsh-lace-ay) means full bodied, and can be very sweet or dry

If they show up with Trocken anywhere on the label (like this: Kabinett-Trocken or Spätlese-Trocken) it means the wine is dry.

If there’s no identifier, the wine is likely dry or slightly off-dry.

Germany is fun, right?

(Side story: I was practicing my pronunciation of German wine terms recently, and it prompted Emma to ask me if I was choking.)

If you get confused or want to be sure you have the right bottle – ask! (That’s why wine boutiques – rather than grocery stores – are great places to buy wine. They have smart and wine-trained staff!)

If you prefer to drink a dry New World Riesling, try one from Eden Valley or Clare Valley in Australia. New York State is making some lovely, juicy Rieslings, as is Washington State. You can get a good Riesling from anywhere between $15-50 (or more). Serve them lightly chilled (30-35 minutes in the fridge should do the trick).

Gewürtztraminer (Geh-vertz-trah-meener)

Another of my Alsatian favorites! Gewürz is the German word for spice, and it aptly describes this wine. On the nose, Gewürztraminer gives you spicy notes of lychees, roses and baking spices. The wine itself is usually dry – although the presence of ripe fruit can make it taste a little sweet. Gewurtztraminer’s full body ensures it will stand up to all your Thanksgiving dishes. Retails for $15-30. Serve lightly chilled.

Albariño 

This Spanish white wine is a crowd pleaser. It’s perfect if you have any fish or seafood on your table, but will also stand up well to turkey, stuffing and the like. It’s slightly less full-bodied than a Riesling or a Gewurtztraminer, and will be a bit more tart to the tastebuds. Where the previous two have more lush, ripe fruit notes of mango, ripe pear and lychee, Albariño will have more tart apple and some lemon lime. Retails for $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.

White Burgundy 

White Burgundy is Chardonnay. I hesitate to put Chardonnay here because it can go very wrong with Thanksgiving. For instance, do not buy a big, buttery, oaked Napa Chardonnay for Thanksgiving. It just won’t work. And, conversely, don’t buy a super acidic French Chardonnay from Chablis. That will work better, but still won’t work well. If you want to buy a Chardonnay, stick with White Burgundy. It’s Chardonnay that isn’t given a tremendous amount of oak, so it allows the more aromatic elements of Chardonnay to come through, and it’s got a medium body to stand up to the food. I’d suggest getting White Burgundy from Pouilly-Fuissé (Poo-ee-Foo-say). Retails $20-40. Serve lightly chilled.

Red Wines

The primary focus in pairing white wines with Thanksgiving foods is to ensure that the wine can stand up to the meal. With red wine, the opposite is true – you want to ensure that the wine you serve doesn’t overwhelm some of the lighter dishes you have on the table. The wines I’ve chosen below should accomplish just that.

Rosé

Rosé is not red wine mixed with white wine. But, it can be a good compromise if you just want to serve one varietal. Rosés come in dry or sweet styles, but I’d recommend a dry style to serve with Thanksgiving. There are all kinds of good Rosés out there. Try to get one with a slightly bigger body – one based on Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or Malbec. Retails between $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.

Pinot Noir

Oh, Pinot Noir. Jancis Robinson, a very famous Master of Wine, calls Pinot Noir “liquid chicken” because of its ability to pair well with a lot of things, and please most everyone’s palate. Pinot Noir is easy to pair because of its (usually) easy tannic structure and the depth and complexity of its flavors. New World Pinot Noirs (California, Oregon, etc) tend to show more fruit (cherry, strawberry), while Old World Pinot Noirs (primarily grown in Burgundy) show fruit with more earth and herbal qualities dominating. Depending on your palate and what you’re serving, you can pretty much go with either.

If you’re buying a French Pinot, look for wine that says “Red Burgundy” on the label – this is your most affordable style, anywhere from $15-25. You can spend a little more and go for Villages style Burgundy, which is a step up. Anywhere up from there will be a Premier Cru (also designated as 1er Cru) or a Grand Cru. The last two designations are where you can drop some dollars. For various reasons, Pinot Noir makes some of the most complex and nuanced wines in the world – and also some of the most expensive!

For younger, riper, fruiter Pinot, stick with Russian River Pinots from California, Oregon, or from Waipara or Central Otago in New Zealand. These are also great choices, and can be purchased for between $20-50. Serve at room temperature.

Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau (Bow-joo-lay) 

Beaujolais is a fun little wine out of France that’s made of the Gamay grape. It’s light, fresh, fruit forward and easy to drink. It’s not complex – because it’s not supposed to be. You can get Beaujolais any time of year (and generally anywhere), but its sidekick, Beaujolais Nouveau, is only available at one point during the year – right around Thanksgiving. Under French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is released at 12:01am on the third Thursday in November (amidst much partying and eating of good food – this is France, after all). Beaujolais Nouveau is young, fresh and can be a little bit spritzy. It’s super fun to drink – and you should drink it young, at least by the following May.

If you’re getting Beaujolais, pay a little extra for Cru Beaujolais, it’s worth it. You can get standard Beaujolais for anywhere between $10-25. Beaujolais Nouveau won’t stretch you more than $15. Serve lightly chilled.

Valpolicella (Val-pole-ee-chella)

Valpolicella (named for the region it comes from in Italy) is my go-to wine for drinking in the fall, and for uncomplicated meal pairings. The wine is light bodied with floral and fruit notes, won’t overwhelm you with tannins like some of its Italian counterparts, and its high acidity makes it a lovely complement to whatever you’re eating. When you’re shopping for this, make sure you buy standard Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, or Valpolicella Superiore. You should avoid Valpolicella Ripasso – that’s delicious, but heavier and not balanced for your meal. $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.