Expert advice for the perfect holiday pour.
The secret to a successful holiday doesn't lie within the exact dishes you serve or wine you pour, per se, but in the lasting ambiance and experience you create. In other words, a holiday is only as good as the sum of its parts and finding that sweet spot between planning the perfect get-together and allowing things to naturally unfold is what will have your guests recounting the holiday for years to come. One of those 'parts' is the wine. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of chatter surrounding Thanksgiving wine pairings and unless you happen to be a sommelier by trade, there's a likelihood that choosing which bottles to put on your table doesn't come effortlessly (don't worry, us either).
But the fact of the matter is, finding the 'right' bottle of wine for Thanksgiving is forgetting what's right and wrong and going with intuition. Sipping on what you and your guests like is what will ensure the day is a success (at least from a beverage standpoint), and even if you're not sure what everyone prefers, there are tips and tricks for getting around that. Ahead, a complete guide to Thanksgiving wine and plenty of notable wineries to shop from before the grand feast.
To Pair or Not to Pair
It might be your inclination to masterfully curate a pairing for each course of your Thanksgiving feast, but most experts say that's overthinking it. "Because a traditional Thanksgiving table has a bunch of different and bold flavors, I like to go for wines that pair with a range of dishes," SOMM Host & Producer Matthew Kaner says. "Specific pairing works if you're more fancy and do course'd out Thanksgiving meals, but most of us proletariat are used to buffet style where we serve ourselves or pass the plates around to family and friends." And besides, attempting to find the holy grail pairing for such a large meal is only adding more stress to an already busy day, something Wine Consultant of Wine With Emilia and Project Manager at Martin Brothers Wine & Spirits Emilia Alvarez says is a big no-no. "I lean toward selecting versatile wines that pair with the general flavor profiles and textures in the meal, rather than with specific dishes," she says. "It's also important to recognize that your guests might have varying preferences and will gravitate towards different wine styles, so it's best to have a solid selection of two to three options to make sure everyone is happy with what's in their glass."
The 'Right' Wine Characteristics
Steering in the direction of versatile wine means you're off to a good start—but what does that mean, exactly? "Thanksgiving typically entails rich foods, so you can't go wrong with acid-driven wines," Owner of Maryam + Company and Partner at Playte Kitchen Maryam Ahmed says. "Sparkling is my personal favorite. It is a great starter wine and fun to pair with dishes, like mashed potatoes or stuffing, to add a layer of texture." Acidity in wine is what gives the sides of your tongue that salivating effect; it helps act as a cutting agent (this is why it's commonly suggested to drink high-acid wines with fatty, rich dishes). Kaner also suggests looking for wines with big fruit character and low tannin structure and Alvarez points to an off-dry wine for complementing Thanksgiving fixings that are on the sweeter side (rule of thumb: your wine should always be sweeter than your food, otherwise it can taste overly bitter).
Things to Avoid
As a Thanksgiving host, avoiding any sort of culinary catastrophe is advised—but is it possible to mess up your wine strategy? Sort of. "My advice would be to keep the tannins and astringent characteristics away from your Thanksgiving table, unless you're a masochist and are just trying to stir up some family drama," Kaner says. In other words, that big, bold bottle of Cab you've been dying to open should be left in the cellar. "That could create a clash or overshadow some of the Thanksgiving classics," Ahmed explains. "Save the heavy hitters for prime rib on Christmas."
While everyone's Thanksgiving varies slightly, there is the general day-of schedule that entails early afternoon light bites followed by the evening feast, leaving the slightly-confusing task of deciding when each wine should be opened. "On Thanksgiving, I think it's best to open everything at once and let your guests choose what they want to drink," Alvarez says. "A good bubbly can go perfectly with the whole meal, just like a crisp, zesty white can work as an aperitif before dinner. Everyone has different preferences for their food and wine, so allow guests to keep their plates and glasses full with whatever makes them happy." Tacking on to that sentiment, Kaner says putting all the options out at once eases stress. "I used to try so hard to control how the wine was served on Thanksgiving and now I just love to put out all the options and let people have at it," he says. "Let people drink what they love, it's okay if they go backwards. But for optimal smiles, I do recommend to start and finish with bubbles. That's a winning pursuit."
Reliable Wine Styles
So you know not to go for the robust Cabernet Sauvignon, but if you remain unsure of what reds and whites to put on the table, there are a few staples that won't let your taste buds down. "Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are easy classics and obvious choices as they always deliver," Kaner says. "Texturally, Chardonnay works with so many different flavors and dish styles and Pinot Noir adds a kiss of fruit with some spice and gentle acidity." Alvarez suggests Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Sancerre for whites given their high acidity, clean minerality and fruit-forward profile, which provide a juicy complement to turkey and veggie sides. "Cru Beaujolais and Pinot Noir are traditionally the red wines of choice, as they are light to medium bodied, high in acidity, and balance tart cranberry and red cherry notes with earthier aromas," she adds. "They pair perfectly with everything from turkey and cranberry sauce to mushroom stuffing."
Unexpected Holiday Pours
As mentioned, you can't go wrong with a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sure, but sometimes a break from tradition is the secret to a memorable Thanksgiving. "There are beautiful white wines with skin contact that add structure to a pairing without overpowering the flavors of a dish," Ahmed says. "If you want to go outside the box, browse your local wine shop for selections from Georgia, the Jura in France, Israel, or Morocco." Alvarez points to Assyrtiko for white wine. "It is native to the Greek island of Santorini and the wine has a crisp, saline minerality and fresh citrus and blossom notes that will pair nicely with turkey meat, salads, green beans, and other vegetable dishes," she says. As for Kaner, "wines from Alsace because of their fruity characteristic and generous acidity and sparkling wines that are fresh and light, like South African Cap Classique," he says. "They give a mineral character, gentle fruit, and always have a kiss of acidity that makes you ready for the next bite from the bounty on your plate."
Festive Serving Ideas
For the over-achievers, there are a few ways you can go above and beyond to make the wine experience for your guests even more festive. "Offer a wine pairing for dessert and break out some port when it's pie time," Alvarez says. "The notes of toffee, figs, and spices in a quality bottle of Tawny port will pair beautifully with apple or pumpkin pie." Ahmed suggests making a splash with a bottle size that matches the celebration. "Large-format bottles make any occasion feel special! If you are hosting the whole family or friend group, buy a magnum to show you care."
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Photo: Courtesy of Martha Stoumen
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