Ah, the great American meal is also a great wine pairing challenge. Basic wine and food pairings can be difficult enough, but because there are so many different dishes in the typical Thanksgiving dinner, pairing wine for it can be even more problematic.
Thanksgiving meals have evolved a lot to include variations on dishes, vegetarian or vegan options, and different cultural influences. For this post, we’ll focus on the traditional Thanksgiving meal. That means a roast turkey with all the “fixin’s” – stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes and/or sweet potatoes, green beans (or green bean casserole), cranberries, and pumpkin pie.
Now, many wine and food pairings are based on pairing a wine with a dominant food item and its particular flavors and texture. (We’ll get into the basics of wine and food pairing sometime soon.)
The problem that Thanksgiving poses is there’s a whole lot of flavors and textures going on. It’s hard to choose one thing to focus on. You’ve got the savory cooking spices like sage, rosemary, and black pepper, the umami flavor of the gravy, the creaminess of the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, the tart tang of the cranberries, and the baking spices of the pumpkin pie.
So you’ve got to think about wines that will go well with a wide variety of flavors and textures.
I’m going to give two answers to this question because bringing wine to a four-person dinner can be different from bringing wine to a 12-person dinner. And it also depends on if others are bringing wine too. The first answer is the “one bottle answer” – what I’d bring if I was only choosing one bottle. The second answer is the “three bottle answer’ – if the dinner party is larger and you want to have more options.
THE ONE BOTTLE ANSWER
Let’s first focus on the smaller dinner where you’d bring only one bottle. This is difficult because you want a wine that pretty much universally pairs with everything. My go-to for this is a German Riesling. Riesling comes in all different levels of sweetness, from dry to super super sweet (which is not an actual wine term but a pretty good description of some Rieslings!) Even for people who say they don’t like sweet wines, a Riesling with a little bit of sweetness is going to pair quite well with most of the Thanksgiving meal dishes.
Rieslings tend to be a bit lower in alcohol than the average wine (good for that relative who sometimes overindulges) and higher in acidity (making it a generally good food wine). The higher acidity will actually counterbalance some sweetness in the wine, making a sweeter wine seem less sweet. Riesling is a really versatile wine when it comes to food.
So how sweet should you go? And how do you know how sweet a particular Riesling is? And if you don’t read German, how do you know what the German wine label says?
When buying a German Riesling, look for the words Kabinett or Spatlese. These are categories of wine styles based on when the grapes were harvested, which can give an indication of sweetness. You might also look for the words halbtrocken or feinherb. These words are sweetness indicators stating that the wine (wine nerd alert!) has between 9 and 18 grams of sugar per liter. That’s not much, and it means that the wine is going to be “off dry” (between dry and medium sweet.) Finally, because producers and importers know that Rieslings can be confusing, some wines have a “sweetness scale” on the back label that makes it much easier.
I’ve got a nice Riesling Kabinett (pictured) for the Thanksgiving dinner I’m attending. This one is super affordable (under $20) and can be found at most major wine retailers.
THE THREE BOTTLE ANSWER
Now let’s look at the three bottle answer. This might be for a larger group and/or to give you more options (like when Aunt Betty swears she only likes red wine.)
Bottle #1: Stick with a Riesling.
Bottle #2: Beaujolais!
Beaujolais comes from the (surprise!) Beaujolais region (just south of Burgundy) in France and is made from the Gamay grape. It’s a fruity – not sweet – light-bodied red wine that is also pretty versatile with food. It won’t overpower the flavors like other reds can, and its simplicity, lighter body, lower tannins, and higher acidity all make it a great wine when you’ve got a lot of competing flavors and textures on your plate.
Beaujolais is quite popular at this time of year because of Beaujolais Nouveau. On the third Thursday of November (one week before Thanksgiving) some producers, mainly in the southern part of Beaujolais, release Beaujolais Nouveau, which has just been harvested, fermented, and bottled in the preceding weeks. So it’s a lighter style of wine that hasn’t spent any time aging. You can spot it pretty easily on the store shelves because it often has very bright and colorful labels. This is NOT the kind of Beaujolais I would recommend.
I recommend a Beaujolais of higher quality – a Beaujolais-Village or a Beaujolais Cru. There are 38 villages, mostly in the mid-section of the region that produce Beaujolais based on higher standards and are thus allowed to use on their labels the term “village” (sounds like vi-lahj, with emphasis on the second syllable), indicating a higher-quality wine. There are ten villages in the northern part of the region that adhere to even stricter standards. These are the Beaujolais Crus.
For most Thanksgiving dinners I’d go with either a Beaujolais-Village or a lighter style of Beaujolais Cru. You’ll be able to identify these by the name of the village on the label: Chiroubles, Fleurie, or St. -Amour.
In addition to the Riesling above, I’m bringing a Beaujolais Cru (pictured here) from the Fleurie appellation to Thanksgiving dinner this year. Like the Riesling, this particular Beaujolais comes in under $20 and can be found at many wine retailers.
Bottle #3: Sparkling white wine
Sparkling is a great option. It’s got higher acidity (a food plus!), and a festive occasion like Thanksgiving deserves a festive drink like sparkling wine. Like Riesling and Beaujolais, sparkling wine can be fairly versatile. Sparkling wine can also be a great pre-dinner drink. And personally, I’ve yet to have a Thanksgiving that didn’t include wine before the meal.
There are a bunch of different sparkling wines, the most well-known (and the most expensive) being Champagne. But you don’t have to break the bank by buying Champagne. Champagne is only made in the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wine made elsewhere with the same grape varieties and same production method as Champagne is not called Champagne simply because of labeling laws and agreements between France and other countries. Sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region but made the same way may have something like “Methode Champenoise” or “Traditional Method” on the label.
A Cremant d’Alsace is my choice alternative to Champagne. It’s produced in the Alsace region of France (bordering Germany) and is much more affordable than most Champagnes. Cava from Spain is another good – and affordable – alternative.
And don’t forget to serve your wines at the right temperatures!
GO FOR SOME EXTRA CREDIT!
Ok, so you’ve got your basic wines, feeling good about Thanksgiving dinner. But you want to do something more. (Maybe something that will impress the in-laws?)
Let’s talk dessert. Pumpkin pie is the traditional Thanksgiving dessert. But apple pie and pecan pie are quite popular too. (My Thanksgiving hostess the past few years makes a ridiculously amazing apple pie.) For dessert I’d go with a Tawny Port. You’re going to spend more (sometimes a lot more), but if you’re going for extra credit, it’ll be worth it. Plus, an open bottle of Port lasts much longer than other wines so don’t feel you have to drink it all right away.
The flavors of a Tawny Port – caramel, cinnamon, walnuts or hazelnuts – are going to go well with the baking spices (allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger) and pumpkin flavor of the pie.
The same goes for the spices and flavor of apple pie. And if you go one step further and have your apple pie the Wisconsin way, it’ll be even better. I grew up in Wisconsin and my dad claims it should be against the law to have apple pie without a thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese. Yes, cheddar cheese. (Really, try it.)
If your Thanksgiving pie of choice is pecan, you might want to try a Ruby Port instead of a Tawny Port. This will be a bit fruitier and the sweetness of the Port will complement the sweetness of the pie’s brown sugar.
But keep in mind, Port is a fortified wine so it has a higher alcohol content. You’ll want to pour much less than a regular glass of wine.
The important thing is to not stress about the wine. Thanksgiving isn’t a time to be fretting about whether you made the right choice. It’s a time to be with people you care about (and who care about you), to enjoy being with them, and to count your blessings for the good things in your life. So be sure to take a moment during dinner, look around you, and be thankful.