Editor’s Note: This was originally published in 2015.
Thanksgiving is upon us, and with it the annual stress over what food to serve, what wines to pair, who to invite (and who to avoid!).
Let’s make one part of this easy on you — the wine! Below are what I like to call the “Thanksgiving benchmarks” for wine pairings: wines that please a crowd and pair well with traditional Thanksgiving foods, including all those leftover turkey sandwiches that you’ll eat.
I generally like to offer four styles of wine at Thanksgiving: a sparkling, a white, a red, and a dessert wine. This gives your guests some options and accommodates the variety of foods on the table.
I serve these before the meal, or as the meal is served. It’s a refreshing way to open your palate, and will also pair well with most of what you’re eating. Plus, bubbles are always a fun and easy way to start the meal, or to break the ice!
Try a Riesling Sekt (a German sparkler with a fuller body), a Prosecco (Italian sparkler) or a Cava (Spanish sparkler). Serve them all well-chilled — about two hours in the fridge.
The key to pairing white wines at Thanksgiving is to make sure the flavors don’t overwhelm the food. Stay away from the big, buttery Chardonnays and the austere Sauvignon Blancs and aim for something more in the middle.
Riesling is my go-to for tastings with turkey, mainly because it’s a wine that comes in all sorts of styles. I prefer the lush, spicy Alsatian Rieslings by producers like Domaine Weinbach, Maison Trimbach, or Zind Humbrecht, but Rieslings from Germany, Australia, Washington state, and New York also provide some lovely options. Serve lightly chilled (30–35 minutes in the fridge will be just perfect). Also, pro-tip: Because Riesling can be dry, sweet, or anything in between, make sure you’re getting the bottle you want. Ask your friendly wine staff for help!
White wines give you plenty of opportunity to mix things up at the table. If Riesling isn’t your thing, try a Gewürtztraminer (and impress everyone by pronouncing Geh-vertz-trah-meener), or a Spanish Albariño.
If you’re absolutely dying to stay with Chardonnay, pick up a white Burgundy from Pouilly-Fuissé. This classic French Chardonnay will give you light fruit notes with a hint of subtle butter, and won’t overpower your meal like its Napa cousins.
Pinot Noir is the easiest red wine to pair with a range of Thanksgiving foods, from mashed potatoes to cranberry sauce. In the wine trade, Pinot Noir is sometimes referred to as “liquid chicken.” Aside from the gross visual, it’s an apt way of describing Pinot’s ability to pair with everything, and to please most palates!
If you’re going for Pinot Noir, there are two styles to choose from: Old World (mostly French), and New World (everywhere else). The Red Burgundies from France will give you an earthier, richer taste with smoky, brambly notes. The New World styles are fruitier and rounder, with more emphasis on the cherry and strawberry notes. Serve these guys at room temperature. Unless you’re serving Grand Cru Red Burgundy (in which case, please invite me), Pinot Noir does not generally need to be decanted.
Another fun option to serve at Thanksgiving is Beaujolais, or Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais hails from France, and is a perfect choice for easy drinking table wine. Standard Beaujolais is available all year, 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). It’s a fun, spritzy red wine, meant to be drunk young. Serve both lightly chilled.
Lastly, for the Italian wine lovers, Valpolicella is a solid Thanksgiving pairing. This wine is lighter-bodied with notes of cranberry and dried strawberries — pleasing and uncomplicated. If you’re shopping for Valpolicella, make sure you stick with the following styles: Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, or Valpolicella Superiore. Avoid Valpolicella Ripasso, at least for this meal — it’s great, but heavier and not balanced for this meal. Serve lightly chilled.
Wine and pumpkin pie? Yes, it can be done.
The key with dessert wines is to make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert that’s being served. For traditional Thanksgiving pies, try a sweet wine from Sauternes, a Late-Harvest Riesling, or an Ice Wine from New York or Germany. Mix things up even more with an Ice Cider from Vermont.
After spending a decade on Capitol Hill, Rachel Bovard now spends her days at the Heritage Foundation and her free time as a sommelier and a Diploma Candidate in the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. She writes about wine at clo-wines.com.
Image: Quinn Dombrowski