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What wine for Thanksgiving?

November 6, 2010

I was going to skip this topic since this time of year usually brings out lots of these articles in magazines, newspapers, and blogs now, too. But I’ve already been asked by former WineIQ class member and all-around wine lover Lisa, so here goes.

First, know that you’re not really pairing with the center of the table, i.e. the turkey. Unless it is spiced in an unusual way, the Thanksgiving bird is going to work well with a wide variety of wines. What to de here is consider the plethora of flavors and textures in all of the many sides that are on the table. Since there are so many sides with an unusually wide range of flavors at the traditional Thanksgiving feast, there is a wide range of wines that will work well. This, by the way, is one of my favorite things about what I call “the best meal of the year” (yes, I LOVE Thanksgiving dinner!).

Before we get into the do’s of Thanksgiving wine pairing, it’s more important here to look at some don’ts. First, it’s probably not worthwhile to open your best, pricey and ‘been saving this for a great meal’ bottle. Unless you’re really eager to do so or having a smaller or fancier evening, your guests would be just as happy with the cheap stuff. In fact, people who like simple or slightly sweet wines are likely to not like the dry, complex wine that us wine geeks would foam at the mouth over.

No value judgement here, by the way. If good old Aunt Lizzy likes cheap chardonnay, then by all means don’t foist an expensive Grand Cru white Burgundy on her; she might not like it. Save it for your own pleasure! Make her happy, find out what style she likes and have a bottle for her, too.

Ok, my second word of avoidance is to skip high alcohol powerhouse wines. Even if you like Australian Shiraz or California Zins that clock in at over 15% alcohol, dial it back a bit for this night. First, we’re all sure to overeat and possibly over drink, too. So lowering the alcohol content helps us to enjoy the big meal and maybe another glass or two. Plus, some of those mish-mosh of flavors on the table would go better with something softer on the palate.

Now, what should we look for in the wine selections? Mix it up and get some whites and reds, even if you or the family tend to drink only one or the other. It’s a perfect night to pour just a small glass of something you don’t normally drink and experiment with some food pairings. It is a festive meal, too, so some bubbly is perfect as an aperitif or with the meal. Good sparkling wine is very versatile in food pairing, a natural for the big range of foods on the table.

I like to have some interesting white to start with. A good sauvignon blanc or chardonnay is fine, but alternatives can be fun. Torrontés from Argentina is an interesting stand-in for sauvignon blanc, or a good Italian white like verdicchio would liven up the evening. I think there is no better meal for a German riesling; there are plenty of dry choices, but something just a little off-dry would work with all those diverse flavors.

Then there’s the reds. I prefer to stay lighter, avoiding the cabernet sauvignons in favor of pinot noir or sangiovese (the grape used in Chianti). Both of those are fantastic with turkey and won’t overwhelm the other foods on the table. If you like bigger reds, stick to fruitier and lighter in alcohol when choosing something like a Zinfandel. I recently used a Zen of Zin California Zinfandel for a class, and I selected that one because it’s a sane 13.5% alcohol.

Last word of advice is to think about how your selections will work with the biggest flavors on the table, all those sides, the sauces, the spice in the stuffing, the sweetness in the yams.

And don’t forget something yummy for dessert, a good port, a Sauternes, a sweet riesling or a moscato, just to name a few.

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