It’s likely the most commonly-asked question surrounding Thanksgiving dinner: What wines do I pair with the meal? There is no definitive answer, as questions such as these are very personal in nature. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t try to provide some guidance.
We strongly believe that Thanksgiving dinner starts with sparkling wine. In our family, we have those who prefer to stick with sparkling throughout the entire meal, so it’s always important to have at least a couple of bottles. If budget is a concern, we suggest trying a gentler-fizz Crémant from France instead of Champagne, which is made exclusively within France’s Champagne region. Crémant tends to be better-priced and compares favorably with more expensive domestic sparklings. Crémant is made from many different varietals across France, unlike Champagne where only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier may be used. In the Loire, for instance, you will find Crémant made from Chenin Blanc, the traditional white varietal of that region.
If you want to be on the cutting edge and have a slightly increased budget, then Grower Champagnes are definitely the way to go. In recent years, the phenomenon of Grower Champagne has really burst onto the scene. Historically, in Champagne, those who grew the grapes would sell their harvest to the large co-ops, like Veuve or Möet, who would blend together all of the various producers’ fruit to create a house ‘style’. More recently, those same growers have begun to make their own labels which are often equally, if not more, impressive as those from the great Champagne houses.
To cover a broader range of bubbly tastes, we recommend pouring both a Rosé and a Brut or a Blanc de blanc. This way, you’re covered for guests who prefer their bubbles to be pink with more red fruit and tartness. We selected a Rosé and a Brut from two small growers in Champagne that are short on quantity, but huge on quality, and at an attractive price.
Our sparkling picks:
- NV Domaine L’Hoste Brut Tradition Champagne
- Philippe dublanc
- Diamant Brut Rose
- NV Lete Vautrain Rose royal Champagne
White wines can be a tricky pairing. Most experts would agree that the best pairing for the variety of textures and flavors to complement a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is Riesling. Most Americans associate Riesling with a sweet, white wine, and while those certainly exist, the majority of the worlds’ Riesling is dry, and will finish without any sweetness. What make Riesling a great match for turkey dinner is its acid (that’s what really makes most wines pair well with food). Riesling tends to have higher acid levels and lower alcohol then say a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay. The acid and balance of a Riesling tend to complement the diversity of the flavors of Thanksgiving dinner.
Although we have said for years that Riesling will be the next great white varietal, Chardonnay is still king. Chardonnay is America’s favorite white wine and it has been for years. For Thanksgiving dinner, however, we recommend staying away from those big oaky, buttery Chards from Napa and focus on cooler climate Chards with more… Acid! (starting to see a theme?). To us, the essential Chard pairing for the feast is Chablis, and not the kind that Gallo made famous. We’re talking about the real stuff made in the Burgundian appellation of Chablis. It’s 100% Chardonnay, but if you’re a big oak California Chard drinker, you may not recognize it. Chablis has amazing calcareous soils full of mineral that give it a very pleasing and flinty fruit palate.
But wait you say, Thanksgiving is an American holiday! Quit pushing these French wines on us. Indeed, there are many out-of-this-world Chardonnays from up and down the west coast of the US. We tend to prefer cooler-climate Chards (Oregon, Sonoma Coast, Carneros or Central coast) which are going to be a better match with the meal because of their balance and the acidity. We are particularly fond of the Double Gold-winning Kapara Cellars Sangiacamo vineyard Chardonnay. We like it for a few reasons. It’s very well balanced and will pair nicely with the food. It hails from Carneros, just off of the San Pablo Bay in Northern California, where the cooler climate lends itself to that balance. We’re happy to call the Sangiacomo family friends who grow absolutely stellar Chardonnay.
Other varietals to consider on Turkey Day are Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier (vee-ohn-yeah). Viognier is an aromatic white wine known much more for its floral nose than the intensity of its palate. It can sometimes be flabby and isn’t always high in acid, but the nose really helps intensify the smells of the feast, and for our money, that’s a good deal of the delight on Thanksgiving. From the plethora of Sauvignon Blanc styles available, we would recommend a Sancerre from the Loire region of France. For our money, it’s the best Sauv Blanc out there, and its biting acidity makes it an outstanding match with Thanksgiving.
If you’re looking to make a statement, consider bringing a magnum. Twice the wine and a very impressive way to make an entrance!
And then there were reds. The most oft-cited pairing for Thanksgiving meal by wine snobs is Gamay and particularly Cru Beaujolais which is 100% Gamay from the Beaujolais region of France. Gamay has a very nice acid profile, and generally a lighter wine than traditional Bordeaux varietals, and shows a lot of diverse flavors on the palate which makes it an incredibly diverse match for food.
However, if you’re looking for domestic pairings to suit your palate, we recommend the all-American grape, Zinfandel, with an ode to Pinot Noir. We love a good Zinfandel for this American holiday because it is generally considered to be the American varietal (though it is actually the same as Primitivo from Italy). We opt for a Zin from Russian River rather than Dry Creek Valley because it has a bit more balance and finesse than its next door neighbor, which, in Dry Creek Valley, produces more muscular and brooding zinfandels.
At Thanksgiving, you just can’t miss with Pinot Noir. A red Burgundy would be our choice, but once again paying tribute to this American holiday, we go back to the Sangiacamo Vineyard and choose the Kapara Cellars Pinot. This all-around winner has nice balance and adequate acidity to balance out the cornucopia of flavors you will taste at your table.
If you insist on having a Cabernet Sauvignon (the king of grapes) with dinner, then you can go a couple of different ways. Try something a touch lower in alcohol with good balance. We love the Chalk Hill appellation for providing just that. It’s over the Mountains from Napa, but being in Sonoma, it will benefit from the cooling influence from being closer to the ocean. However, if your heart is set on Napa, try something with a bit of bottle age. It will have mellowed out a bit and the time will do wonders for mellowing out the tannins and softening the edges, which is important to not overpower what’s on the plate.
- 2012 Hook and Ladder Chalk Hill Cab
- 2009 Vine Cliff Rock Block Cab
- 2014 Kapara Cellars Pinot Noir
- 2009 Domaine Michel Goubard Bourgogne
Other reds to consider include Dolcetto from Peimonte (home of Barolo) and Syrah. If you’re in Peimonte and sit down for a meal with an old-timer, they will always reach for the Dolcetto over the Nebbiolo-based Barolo, which is far more expensive. Dolcetto doesn’t get as widely distributed in the US as it should, but it’s a really great food wine and worthy of consideration.
Syrah is another good option. Somewhat like Sauvignon Blanc, it can be a bit of a chameleon from region to region and winemaker to winemaker. Our preference is Syrah from the Northern region of France. It’s a bit big and can be over powering, but with a couple years of bottle age, it can soften. The same applies for domestic Syrah. Look for something from a cooler appellation or a bottle with a bit of age on it.
No matter what your wine selections, the most important thing is to enjoy time spent with your family and to drink wine that you love. Happy Thanksgiving.
Related Video: Wine Decanters Explained
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