Serving wine at Thanksgiving is a challenge because of the variety of dishes and flavors, according to Sara Schneider, wine editor, Sunset magazine. She says that if the dish is sweet, such as sweet potatoes with maple syrup and marshmallows you need to look for wine with fruitiness. If the dish is spicy, look for wine with low tannins and low alcohol to minimize the heat. Acidic foods such as cranberry sauce or lemony greens, call for a wine with acidity. The acidity is what makes wine crisp and able to stand up to tart food.
A Wine for all Dishes
Sara's pick for a wine that meets these characteristics is pinot noir. "When it comes to reds, a silky, sensuous pinot – lively with acidity – is simply the best food wine in the world. And with its typical tart-berry fruit, warm spices, and earthy aromas, it's a slam dunk for Thanksgiving. A high-acid, low-tannin pinot can do right by almost all the exuberant side dishes a turkey requires."
Cooking Light wine columnist Karen MacNeil agrees that pinot noir is a perfect choice for a traditional thanksgiving meal. "Because it's a red wine, pinot noir has a savory, earthy character that complements many fall dishes, yet it also has good underlying acidity–the secret ingredient when you need a single wine to work with a big range of flavors," says MacNeil. She recommends a current vintage pinot from any of these producers: Sanford, Pisoni, Robert Mondavi Winery, Robert Sinskey, or Sebastiani.
Many people say that their current go-to wine for Thanksgiving dinner is chardonnay, and wine editor Schneider is puzzled by that choice, at least if it's a buttery, oaky Chardonnay.
"Normally I would defend the 'I'll drink what I like no matter what's on the table' approach on principle; you're sure to enjoy at least part of the experience that way," says Schneider. "But the trouble with applying that approach to Thanksgiving is that there's just so much on the table–herby gravy, tangy cranberry sauce, savory dressing and sweet potatoes. All of that will kill an oaky chardonnay, even if it could stand tall with bare turkey."
"Chardonnay would be the last wine I would think of for Thanksgiving dinner," confirms Shayn Bjornholm, Master Sommelier and Education Director of the Washington Wine Commission. "Super-dry wines can die in the presence of all that fruit, sugar, and salt," he goes on. "White wines with a little residual sugar can be your friend." Reds he considers harder to pair, because most are dry. But white or red, it needs to be fruity.
Best Bet: Serve Red and White
Andrea Immer Robinson, Master Sommelier and wine consultant for Health magazine, believes that wines have a tough job at Thanksgiving because "they have to adapt like culinary chameleons, hopping among the platters of various flavors in the typical spread. For a menu that includes turkey and gravy, tangy stuffing, sweet maple potatoes, and a salad with salty cheese, it's best to put a white and a red on the table, and let folks help themselves to what they like.
A California red zinfandel such as Rosenblum Cellars Vintners Cuvee (Sonoma) has the fruit and spice to handle all those tastes quite well. For your white, skip the oakiness in many chardonnays and choose a grape with the body and lushness to handle both meat and sweet flavors. Viognier, an aromatic white varietal, does the job nicely; try Smoking Loon (California)."
Keep it Familiar and Yummy
Sara Schneider believes that, above all, the wines shouldn't be intimidating. "This isn't the time to pull out an esoteric bottle calculated to impress. Better to bring out something familiar, yummy, whimsical enough that your dotty Aunt Kathy will appreciate it, but thoughtful enough that anyone who really loves wine will be satisfied."
Karen MacNeil, Chairman of the Wine Department at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California, and author of The Wine Bible, and Wine, Food, & Friends.
Andrea Immer Robinson, Master Sommelier and Dean of Wine Studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and author of Great Wine Made Simple.
Sara Schneider Wine Editor, Sunset magazine and co-author of California Wine Country: A Sunset Field Guide.
Click here for more information on wine tastings and wine and food pairings from Sunset.
See our Thanksgiving Recipes.