Thanksgiving Wine: What to Drink

Paul Blow

As sure as turkeys will be overcooked and footballs will be fumbled on Thanksgiving, American wine writers will write columns opining on what bottles should grace the heaving dinner table. Our search for the perfect Thanksgiving wine is remarkably similar to the quest for a unifying theory of the universe. Scientists want to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity; we seek the singular wine that can make sense of cranberry sauce, turkey, green bean casserole, and baked yams with marshmallows.

I'll leave you to decide who is the more geeky—physicists or wine-lovers—but there's no dodging the fact that the cacophony of Thanksgiving flavors, colors, and textures is brutal on wine pairings. Those sweet baked yams might be perfect with a tawny Madeira, which would in turn be horrible with green beans, which would be great with an herbaceous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which would totally offend the cranberry sauce. Typical solutions offered by wine sages are as much situational as they are useful: Beaujolais Nouveau because it's versatile and happens to be released right around Turkey Day; Zinfandel because it's an all-American wine and Thanksgiving is an all-American holiday.

My number one piece of advice for Thanksgiving is the same as for any other day: Drink what you like. Matching wine with your own palate is easier than matching it with any food. Open a slew of things and put them on the table and let people help themselves.

But that's also a cop-out. If you're reading this, you most likely enjoy wine. And pairing wine with food is one of the fun games we wine-lovers like to play. So here are my picks.

Bubbly is not only exceedingly fun to drink but also quite agile at the table. Even a blanc de noirs (made from red grapes) or rosé sparkler will grudgingly accompany things like Brussels sprouts and will positively shine with turkey, gravy, and even cranberries. Such wines have the requisite high acidity to take on both vegetables and meats as well as a little residual sugar, which lets them get along with dishes with some sweetness. Bubbles allow you to stay with the American theme (try Schramsberg, Roederer Estate, or Iron Horse from California or Argyle from Oregon). Wanna get crazy? Try a sparkling red like Lambrusco. It's got the acidity and the sugar of other carbonated wines and even a little tannin, which allows it to pair magically with more hearty dishes.

Drinking sparkling wines for days at a time is no problem for me, but most people like to settle down with a red at some point, especially if the weather is cold and autumnal. Since we're dealing with fowl, lighter red wines are usually appropriate, as they won't have the tannins to overwhelm the turkey. Beaujolais is a nice choice here: It's got the fruit to meet the cranberry sauce head-on, but also a lot of earthiness to work with vegetables and meats. If you choose Beaujolais, you might look for 2008s over the much-ballyhooed 2009s. The '08s not only have less tannin, they're probably on closeout and can be snagged for a song.

I'm not a huge Pinot Noir fan at Thanksgiving; the bright cherry fruit seems somehow too sweet. But if you've got people who prefer heftier reds, I might suggest the spicy black and red fruit of a good Côtes du Rhône or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The peppery blue fruit of a balanced American Syrah (like Qupé) can work well. And, if you decide to go with a Zinfandel, I recommend finding one that walks the savory side like Ridge, Bella, or Mazzocco.

And, finally, just as important as which wine you drink with the meal is what you drink afterward. I recommend a digestivo to help it all go down. Fernet-Branca is popular in some parts—and I love its herbaceously bracing ickiness—but there are a few options for the more bitter-averse. Try Ramazzotti, Averna, or even the sharp and highly spiced Underberg. They make washing the dishes and boxing up the leftovers a much better experience.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.