Turkey Day

November 25, 2009

For whatever reason people always seem to be confused about what wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. I never really put too much thought into it until this year – we always had a red and a white on the table that seemed to go pretty well, but since I have been appointed de facto sommelier for every social gathering, I decided to pay a little more attention. In the weeks leading up to what is both the biggest wine sales day and the biggest eating day of the year, I pulled information from a few tastings, the most useful and fun being The Second Glass’ Thanksgiving Crash Course at Downtown Wine & Spirits, a few episodes of Wine Library TV, and an article in Wine Spectator, to put together my own primer to Thanksgiving wine pairing.

First of all, apparently there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to Thanksgiving – pair to the turkey or pair to everything else. Not especially useful, considering turkey is, in and of itself, pretty boring. This presents another decision: choose a wine that complements the turkey because of their similarities, think dry whites, or one that plays to a contrast – I have the Southern Rhône in mind. The alternative, pair the wine with the sides, is equally futile, how exactly would you categorize the eclectic mix of accompaniments that adorn a Thanksgiving table – mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and who knows what else?

The good news about nearly every flavor being represented means it’s hard to go wrong. My number one rule of wine pairing is especially relevant here: forget the rules, eat what you like and drink what you like.

Now to examine, evaluate, and hopefully improve on a few traditional pairings:

Pinot Blanc. This plays to the turkey, and is actually quite a good move because they tend to be high in acid and pretty versatile, i.e. they will also fair well with most of what else you put on your plate. I actually suggest any of the four major white grapes from the Alsace – the others being Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. All of these wines are going to be high acid and widely appealing. Depending on your crowd you can run the range of the dry-sweet spectrum.

Beaujolais Nouveau. This is just silly, and probably has only made its way onto the Thanksgiving table because it happens to come out around this time of year. It should all be gone by Thanksgiving anyway, don’t keep that stuff a whole week. Plus pairing this with cranberry sauce is like pairing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a grapefruit. Cru Beaujolais may not be a bad idea though.

Zinfandel. This was the one Thanksgiving pairing that I was familiar with, and to be honest I think it still does a good job. These wines tend to be big, full of bright red fruit and spice that seems to be perfect for the late fall. As an added bonus, the alcohol on these can creep up to 15-16%, which when working in tandem with tryptophan is the perfect recipe for sending unruly family members to bed early. As an alternative, try some Italian reds with some of the same flavors – Nero D’Avola if you want something lighter in body or a big Piedmont red, again, know your crowd – Pinot drinkers go with the former, Cab drinkers, the latter.

Southern Rhône. I am slowly starting to believe that these wines may be good for absolutely everything. This actually is a traditional pairing – the stewed fruit flavors and underlying spice make these wines a great complement to most of what is going to appear on your plate. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the classic, but you would be fine with a generic Côtes-du-Rhône, or, I suggest a Vacqueyras, which tend to be a little more fruit forward and accessible. They had an interesting move at the Second Glass tasting, using a Spanish red from the same grapes instead of a Rhône, which I thought did just as well.

So what is going to be on my table? We are of course going to start with bubbles, and I’m thinking of venturing outside of Champagne for this one and going with a sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire. For whites I plan to go with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer because I think it will complement the sweet potato casserole that I’m making and also because I want my family to try new things. My Dad is a Chardonnay drinker, so that will make its necessary appearance. For reds I think I’m going to go the Vacqueyras route, though I’m also thinking about a Piedmontese blend I tried at the Wine Bottega, the 2003 Le Piane, a blend of Bonarda, Nebbiolo, and Vespolina. For dessert I’m going to go Port, though at the Second Glass tasting we had an Australian dessert wine from Muscadelle that would be awesome with pumpkin pie. I however will most likely have moved on to Grand Marnier at this point. Happy Thanksgiving.



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