Wines with Thanksgiving

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Guidelines for Pairing Wines with Thanksgiving Dinner

If your family and friends are anything like mine, there will be an eclectic array of different flavors and aromas scattered about on your Thanksgiving table. From tangy cranberry sauce, to gooey-sweet yams topped with marshmallows, to spicy stuffing and meaty turkey, it’s the most schizo meal of the year.

What makes this food-and-wine pairing event a challenge is not the turkey, which can happily pair with a wide variety of wines, but the side dishes. The side dishes surrounding your turkey will most likely contain a broad range of tastes and textures, and include items with the wine-challenging components of sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, not to mention a myriad of competing flavors.

In order to find the perfect multi-tasking wine that can blend well with all of these flavors, stand up to the multitude of tastes on your plate, and run little risk of a food-versus-wine clash; I have developed the following guidelines for finding the perfect wine for a holiday feast.

Rule #1 – Choose a Wine with Lots of Crisp, Lively Acidity

High acid wines are food-loving wines. Here’s why: tangy foods, such as cranberry sauce, citrus, or anything from the relish tray are going to make any wine taste less acidic. To counterbalance this effect, you need to serve a wine that has very lively acidity to begin with. That way the wine will maintain its balanced flavor even in the presence of acidic foods. High acid wines are also palate-cleansing wines, washing your mouth clean of buttery, spicy, or meaty flavors and leaving you ready for one more bite!

Rule #2 – Choose a Wine with Lots of Fruity Flavors

Cranberry Sauce, Sweet Potatoes, Creamed Corn and Yams…I hope I have ALL of these dishes on Thanksgiving Day! And since I know I will, I will be sure to choose a wine that has a very fruit-forward style. The reason? Any fruity or sweet flavor in food will diminish the fruitiness or sweetness of a wine. Since we know we will meet fruit-on-fruit, we need to start with a wine with a good deal of fruit flavors, and maybe even sweetness, in order to give the wine flavors a fighting chance!

Rule #3 – Choose a Wine that is Low to Moderate in Tannin

Tannin is an integral part of the taste, flavor, and structure of most red wines, and the component that gives many wines their “velvety” feel. So, even though we love it, we must be careful with tannic wines on Thanksgiving, as too much tannin can clash with salty tastes or spicy flavors. Keep those red wines smooth!

Rule #4 – Choose a Wine with Very Little, if Any, Oak

Oak is a beloved flavor enhancer of many wine styles. However, highly oaked wines can clash with some food flavors. The groaning-board meal style of most holiday feasts usually has at least a few dishes that are slightly sweet, a bit fruity, or a tad spicy. All of these flavors can spell trouble when combined with oak!

Rule #5 – Choose a Wine that is Moderate in Alcohol

Alcohol, while part of what makes wine so delightful, has a tendency to clash with certain tastes and flavors. If at all possible, keep your wine choices in the moderate alcohol range. Let’s face it…turkey already has enough drowsiness-inducing tryptophan to put you to sleep. We don’t need any help from excessive amounts of alcohol!

Wine Suggestions….What Wines Fit All The Rules??

White Wines


From Alsace, Germany, or Washington State

Riesling is one of the most food-loving wines on the planet. I tell my students hoping to be future chefs that if they want a wine to show off their food, choose Riesling. What makes Riesling so special is its ability to retain high levels of acidity even while very ripe. This makes for a complex, flavorful, fruity wine that always shines through with acidity. Riesling will blend fabulously with your turkey, while its fruitiness will allow its unique flavor to stand up to the sweetness of your cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes.


From, Texas, California, or The Rhone Valley of France

Viognier is a medium to full bodied white wine that is intensely aromatic. Typical flavors of Viognier include ripe pear, apricot, citrus, apple, honey, clove, and nutmeg. If these sound like flavors you might find on your Thanksgiving table, you can see why this wine is such a good match for Turkey Day. In addition to the flavor matching possibilities, Viognier has the perfect medium body to blend with all the tastes on your table, and just enough acidity to refresh your palate in between bites.


The Flavors are Right, but Say No to Oak

Chardonnay, almost always made in a dry, but fresh and fruity style, is a perfect wine for turkey. A match in texture, with just enough acidity to cut through the meatiness, and a good flavor combination, it makes for a fine wine on the Thanksgiving table. One strict word of caution…in order to avoid a sweet potato and oak wrestling match (where no one is a winner, trust me!), be sure to choose a low-oak Chard. Look for a traditional White Burgundy (France’s contribution to the world of Chardonnay), or a blatantly “Unoaked” version from California, Oregon, South Africa or Australia.


Perfect for the Whole Day

Bubbly wines, including Prosecco, Cava, Champagne, or serious sparklers from the new world, have it all: Crisp Acidity, Citrus-inspired fruit flavors, no tannin, no oak, and low to moderate levels of alcohol. Add to that the fact that nothing says “celebrate” like bubbly, and you have the perfect wine for the season. Bubbly is often used as a pre-meal refresher, which it is perfectly suited for, but don’t forget that your sparkling wine can also last through the entire meal…right up through dessert!


Make it a Serious Rose from the South of France!

I know, you think Rose’ is not the most sophisticated wine in the bin, but in this case I am talking about serious, dry, fruity, crisply acidic Rose’ made from a rose’-loving grape such as Grenache, Syrah, or Cinsault. Rose’ wines such as these are a specialty of some regions of the Rhone Valley and Provence. It’s true that Rose’ wines can go well with just about any food, and with so many flavors on the table at Thanksgiving, rose’ can be a great choice. Look for Rose’ wines from the regions of Tavel, Provence, or the Rhone Valley.

Red Wines

Red Zinfandel

Try one from Lodi or Sonoma, California

If you want your Thanksgiving feast to be an All-American, reach for a bottle of Zinfandel, the closest thing we have to an “All-American” wine. Zinfandel’s rich fruity flavors, redolent of blackberry, cherry, and currant, along with its sweet and savory spices, will form a perfect match for the flavors of your turkey. Zinfandel, despite its forward flavors, can be a good match with meaty turkey and your sweet and spicy side dishes. One word of caution…watch the alcohol levels! If you can find a Zin with around 13% alcohol, you have yourself a hit!

Pinot Noir

From Burgundy, California’s Central Coast or Oregon

Pinot Noir, the most finicky but most favored highly aromatic red wine, fits right in with the various flavors of Thanksgiving. Typically light in body, low alcohol and low tannin, Pinot Noir might just be the best choice for your Thanksgiving feast, assuming you can fork over the bucks for a quality bottle. Pinot Noir’s subtle spiciness and earthy overtones will let the various flavors on your table shine, and if you can find a bottle that promises lots of fruit flavors as well, you might just detect a note of cranberry in your glass as well as your plate!

Malbec From Argentina and…

Shiraz From Australia

Malbec and Shiraz, Shiraz and Malbec…if your stick to Argentine Malbec and Australian Shiraz, you may find a perfect low-tannin, medium-body, little-or-no-oak wine sure to be a great match with your Thanksgiving Feast. Add to that some plum, berry, and cherry fruitiness, and the flavors of spices from cinnamon to clove to pepper, and you have a great match for the red wine lovers around your Thanksgiving table. As an added bonus, both Argentine Malbec and Aussie Shiraz wines can be a bargain, so seek out an inexpensive version and buy a whole case!


France’s Gift to Harvest Festivals the World Over

Every year in November, the first wine of the harvest in the Beaujolais region in France makes its way to market. While it is a coincidence that star wine of the French Harvest Festival (Beaujolais Nouveau) is a perfect, wine-and-food match to the feast of the American Harvest Festival (Thanksgiving), it remains a truth nonetheless. Beaujolais is a delightfully refreshing, zestfully acidic red wine made from the Gamay grape. Beaujolais is meant to be drunk while the wine is young, when its fruity, crisp flavors will blend with your Thanksgiving feast in sheer perfection.

For Dessert…I know, you’re just “too stuffed.”

But later on, perhaps after a nap, someone will talk you into some pumpkin pie! For a food and wine match made in heaven, reach for a Tawny Port. A good Tawny Port (It must be from Portugal to be “real” Port!) is intensely sweet, crisply acidic and luscious enough to stand up to dessert. The silky, spicy, nutty flavors of the wine will reach out and touch your taste buds, forming a perfect match for the silky, spicy, nutty flavors of Grandma’s pumpkin (or pecan) pie. After dessert, have just one more glass of Bubbly, and your day is complete!