My version of “What shall we do to the turkey this year?” is “What shall we drink with the turkey this year?” You’d think I’d have some go-to wines for Thanksgiving dinner, and you’d be partly right. I do tend to reach for two whites and two reds in particular when there’s a big bird in the oven and the likes of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, herb-laced stuffing, and tart cranberry sauce on the table. And they don’t include the most-drunk white and most-drunk red in this country—Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, respectively.
When it comes to finding a great wine match for the sweet and spicy flavors that make their way into most Thanksgiving menus, it’s all about fruit. White or red, you want a wine with exuberant ripe fruit flavors that meet the flagrant sugar and spice in the food. And you don’t want a wine with too much tannin and/or oak that will fight with the same. Here are my go-to whites and reds (more about that “partly” bit later):
Riesling. Sadly sagging in most people’s estimation in the U.S. (probably because 20 years ago, most Riesling here was pretty bad), this is one of the world’s great white wines (especially in Germany). It has juicy green apple, tart stone fruit, and pretty floral layers, plus earthy minerality and vibrant acidity. All of that together offers a handshake to every part of Thanksgiving dinner. Riesling comes in a range of sweetness, from bone dry to quite off-dry. In this case, don’t be afraid of a little sugar in your wine; with sweet foods, it’s a good thing. And good Rieslings have enough acidity to keep them in balance.
Chenin Blanc. Just like Riesling, Chenin earned a dowdy reputation in its early days in the West because most of it wasn’t very good. But it’s a prized white in France, and although there’s not a lot of it made anymore on this side of the pond, what there is is generally very good. And very good with Thanksgiving dinner. Its bright apple, melon, and sometimes hints of stone fruit are just the flavors for sweet-tart dishes. And, like Riesling, it has bracing acidity to wake up your palate.
Pinot Noir. This is a good choice if your Thanksgiving menu is on the tame side (no cayenne in the spice rub on the turkey, in other words). Pinot generally has tart red fruit—cherry, raspberry, cranberry—that’s perfect with TG flavors. Plus, it often carries notes of the warm baking spices like cloves and cinnamon that appear right in TG dishes. And finally, it tends to have an earthy side, a forest floor, loam, and mushroom character that shouts fall.
Zinfandel. If your menu packs some heat, go for this dark-fruited, jammy, spicy wine. Beyond keeping up with the flamboyance on your plate, Zin is as American as a wine gets. Its heritage might be in Eastern Europe (Croatia), but almost nowhere is the wine successful except in California. Zin is our grape. Just one caveat for Thanksgiving dinner, though: Choose a Zinfandel with a moderate alcohol level. Some Zins are pretty high (15.5%, 16%, 16.5% …), and alcohol and spicy food are a fight waiting to happen. Look for one under 15%.
But I said earlier that my go-to wines are only part of the story. It seems like every year, I have one or two new wines on my Thanksgiving radar. And here’s what I’m going to throw into the mix this year:
A white Rhône blend that leans heavily on Grenache Blanc. The juicy, honeyed stone fruit and gorgeous aromatics of this Rhône variety (which is up and coming on the West Coast) seems promising as a bright match for the sweet-tart flavors of the day. In a blend with its Rhône partners like Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne, it becomes a rich wine but with enough acidity to stay alive through the barrage of the menu. I’m thinking it can even handle sweet potatoes with marshmallows!
Grenache. One of the two main red varieties in the Rhône Valley (the other being Syrah), Grenache tends to be a little less tannic than Syrah. It has juicy red fruit flavors—cherry, raspberry—and often a cinnamon and pepper edge that I think would love TG spices.
If all of this sounds like a lot of wine, well, I guess I’ll just have to start drinking early next Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving to you!
To find bottle recommendations for all of these wines, check out our list of medal winners from this year’s Sunset International Wine Competition.
Overwhelmed by all the options? Check out my video on Curious.com for tips on choosing a great bottle of wine.