Ahhh, Thanksgiving dinner: the turkey, the dressing, the gravy, the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, the green bean casserole, and the pumpkin pie. The question is: “What wine goes with all that?” Well, it’s a tough question to answer. First, let me say that I agree with the “your favorite wine” philosophy. If you really like Cabernet Sauvignon, then go for it. I just don’t think there is anything in the typical Thanksgiving dinner that will enhance the Cabernet, and vice-versa. Second, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so the wine should come from America too. No, I don’t mean native American grapes (the idea of Concord wine with turkey makes me shudder). I mean European grapes grown in the United States. Wait, some of you readers are saying: “What about Beaujolais Nouveau?” I know that the release of Beaujolais Nouveau seems to coincide with Thanksgiving dinner very nicely, and that it may be one of the few wines that actually complements cranberry sauce, but if it were released a month earlier or a month later, it wouldn’t be on your Thanksgiving wine radar. My third parameter is that big reds are out. That means Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Meritage, other Bordeaux style blends, and big fat Zinfandels are not good matches (though the leaner, more balanced Zins may have a place).
So, what’s left? Please don’t reach for that Chardonnay just yet. In fact, don’t reach for it at all. Most Chardonnay today is grown in the wrong place so it doesn’t have the acid to balance it with food. Then it is over oaked, and put through full malolactic fermentation, so that it becomes more of a cocktail wine than a food wine. If you are wondering how to tell if the Chardonnay you are buying is grown in the “wrong place”, determine what that producer’s star red wine. If it’s something other than Pinot Noir, chances are great that your Chardonnay is grown in the wrong place. You could serve the Chardonnay as an aperitif, but how about a Methode Champenoise sparking wine? Bubbly is always a good choice for a special occasion, and sparkling wine usually has enough acidity to be served with food. If you plan on a sparkling wine with Thanksgiving dinner, choose one of the toasty – yeasty ones, not the delicate lemony ones.
Believe it or not, there are white wines other than Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc may be the right choice for the green bean casserole and the stuffing/dressing if you make yours with oysters. Roussanne or a Roussanne / Marsanne blend would be an excellent pairing with white meat turkey, mashed potatoes, and a stuffing/dressing that is not overwhelming (no oysters, no red meat sausage, and herbs “in check”). Gewurztraminer, either dry or off-dry would work for the same food items. A Semillon, if you can find a good one, might be the best of all, but fewer and fewer producers seem too be making it. Albariño, a Spanish white variety, is becoming popular, and I can imagine the right one being a good choice for Thanksgiving, but I have some research to do; maybe next year.
As for red wine, Pinot Noir is a great choice, and if I were only going to have one wine, this would probably be it. It should be a good Pinot Noir, though, this is no time for a bargain basement wine. Neither Merlot nor Syrah would be my choice, but I can’t fault either. Zinfandel, so long as it’s a balanced one, would be an excellent choice if the stuffing/dressing has nuts or sausage, or if the yams are on the spicy side, rather than of the marshmallow-topped variety. Grenache would also be a fine choice, especially if the turkey is smoked. Sangiovese or Tempranillo may be interesting options. The trouble is many winemakers tend to use too much new oak in the aging process for these wines, or add Cabernet Sauvignon. These winemakers seem to think that both give these wines more “structure”, but ruin them for our purpose. Barbera, because of its natural acidity, would be an interesting selection, but it goes so well with tomato sauced Italian food, that I tend to want to save it for Lasagna.
Then, there is rosé. A dry rosé goes with a myriad of foods, and may be an alternative here. This is especially true if the gravy or potatoes came out a little too salty.
So, where does that leave us? With the turkey breast and potatoes, a white with good body (read as no light bodied wines) and good acidity (read as forget most Chardonnay). With the dark meat and the gravy, I’d go for a Pinot Noir or a Grenache. The stuffing/dressing pairing really depends on what’s included. If oysters or sausage are included, then your choices may be limited, but otherwise, a full bodied white or a light to medium bodied red will work fine. With sweet potatoes or yams, well, if they have marshmallows on top, no wine is ideal, but a medium bodied red won’t be overwhelmed. With a slightly spicier serving (look up Ancho Sweet-Potato purée on Epicurious.com), then Zinfandel comes to the fore. With green bean casserole, well, I omit the green bean casserole, because I am not a fan, but if you insist, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir is your best choice. With the cranberries, sparkling wine may be your only reasonable option. If you are limiting yourself to two wines, I’d go with a Pinot Noir and a good sparkler. A Grenache and a Gewurztraminer would be my second choice.
For all the troubles with the main part of the dinner, dessert is easy: late-harvest Gewurztraminer with pumpkin pie or late-harvest Riesling with apple pie. Bon appetite!