Thanksgiving has a strong case for being the perfect holiday: It centers around food, family, and football. And miraculously, it remains untouched by the forces of commercialism that dominate every other facet of American life. Avoid the testy conversations, and Thanksgiving is pure pleasure.
But there’s one thing that many wine lovers see as holding Turkey Day back: The food can be a bear to pair. But our Wine Team is up to the challenge, so from first course to food coma and most everything in between, we’ve got the pairings—some expected, others adventurous—to elevate your meal, dish by dish.
Arrival and appetizers
Head of Wine Vanessa Conlin is all about Champagne—every day of the year, sure, but especially on Thanksgiving—because who better to pop a bottle of bubbly with than friends and loved ones? But Champagne doesn’t just work because it’s festive, but because it’s dry and has great, zippy acidity, which is a formula for a fantastically versatile food pairing wine. Whether you’re starting the meal with a cheese plate, chilled seafood, or just about anything else, Champagne can’t go wrong.
For off-the-beaten-path bubbles, track down a Bugey-Cerdon, the sparkling, deeply colored rosé from the French Alps. Made from the Gamay grape via the mèthode ancestrale (just one fermentation instead of two), Bugey-Cerdon is ruby-pink and alive with great verve and lip-smacking sweetness. Its color and depth make it the perfect conversation piece to start off the night, plus the low alcohol content makes it a wise early choice… because it’s a long meal!
A powerful Pinot might fare best when you need a red to contend with a fully loaded Thanksgiving plate (turkey, gravy, stuffing, Brussels sprouts with bacon…), but try this: Pick out a delicate, nuanced Burgundy, match it with a mild but rich piece of dark meat turkey, and enjoy the subtle and sublime flavors. Lush red berry fruit, cleansing acidity, and deep earthiness make Burgundy perfect with fowl like squab and duck, and the same virtues will shine with the hearty parts of the Thanksgiving bird.
Our unexpected Turkey pick comes from what our VP of Wine Robert Emery called his “first magical food pairing experience” many years ago: “Any dry, aromatic white with enough acidity and body to match the savory notes in the turkey, such as Alsatian Gewürtztraminer or Austrian Grüner Veltliner, work really well,” he said. “They match even better if you save a little to add to the gravy while reducing it…” And even better, we think, if there’s a glass in your hand while you’re cooking.
Robert also spoke up on behalf of what’s known as a first-call red for Thanksgiving: Cru Beaujolais. “I’m at heart a red wine lover, so I always open a bottle of Beaujolais to go with the meal. With ham, I consider how the tang and richness of cranberry sauce play off the umami flavors of the meat, and Cru Beaujolais works really well.”
For something unexpected, try Friulano—we’ve dubbed it the “ultimate prosciutto wine” before, and it’s our top unexpected match for holiday ham. With beautiful florality, a silky texture, and tons of stone fruit richness, this white wine is a super-drinkable match for a savory slice of ham.
Master Sommelier Sur Lucero captured the essence of Thanksgiving stuffing pick beautifully: it’s the “hearty bounty of the cool winter months: root vegetables, chestnuts, mushrooms, roasted game, and highly seasoned gravy,” and it “begs for a wine that brings richness and spice to the table.” Sur’s pick is Châteaunuf-du-Pape and the surrounding Southern Rhône appellations (Gigondas, Vacqueyras, even Côtes du Rhône) because “they all have the fruit concentration, the cracked pepper, and the dried floral tones that bring so much versatility to the Thanksgiving table.”
To pair classic Thanksgiving fare like stuffing, our VP of Wine Neil Mechanic heads south to Mendoza, Argentina, and the 2015 El Enemigo Bonarda. Its purity of dark black and blue fruit, partnered with its mouthwatering acidity and hedonistic spice, will pair with a range of meat preparations, from a Turkey leg to herb-crusted leg of lamb.
Everything in One Bite
Let’s be real: The overloaded plate is the essence of Thanksgiving, and each forkful of food is likely to deliver a little bit of everything. No problem for a wine with richness and spice, says Neil, who is a Sonoma County maven. “Go with an American classic for the Thanksgiving table, and that’s Zinfandel! Old-vine blends that are balanced and nuanced are ideal to uplift the trio of Turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Zin is also the perfect foil to accentuate and wild rice-stuffed pork shoulder preparation.”
MS Sur Lucero says go with the full-bodied neutral whites of the Southern Rhône, which are more than up to the task of a mixed-plate pairing. They might be under the radar to most wine lovers, since only about 3-4% of the entire production in Châteaunuf-du-Pape is reserved for white wines, but they’re made for moments like this: “They’re full-bodied, with a savory profile of raw almonds, beeswax, and marzipan, and just a kiss of bitterness on the back end,” says Sur. “The richness of these wines and their non-fruity profile make them ideal with so many dishes that show up at my favorite holiday of the year.”
Pumpkin and Apple Pie
The second football game’s on, you’re stuffed, and you’ve got no room left… except perhaps for a piece of pie and some vanilla ice cream. There’s nothing better than a cup of black coffee, but if that’s a bit boring, go with Madeira or sherry. With a touch of sweetness, complex nuttiness, and bright acid, these wines are both sweet and savory, and work extremely well with challenging desserts.
Leave it to our globe-trotting Japanophile VP of Wine Eduardo Dingler to leave the grape world altogether: He recommends that intrepid Turkey-tasters grab a bottle of sake. He loves Katafune Tokubetsu Honjozo Genshu: “It’s a generous and voluptuous sake from Niigata prefecture that extends its pairing reach beyond imagination: It can handle spice, sweetness and rich dishes, from green bean casserole (a classic!) to sweet potatoes, and even apple and pumpkin pie.”
Warmth, richness, and spice for the reds, and keep the whites dry and high (acid, that is). Maybe the best part of Thanksgiving is that there’s likely to be a pretty decent-sized group on hand, and the more people you’ve got, the more wine you can try. That’s the Wine Access way of saying the more (wine), the merrier (we are).
Cheers to a fantastic Thanksgiving holiday!