Late autumn, and harvest is done. We have at last conceded our fate and moved indoors. It’s time to lay a fire in the hearth, light the oven, and excavate the stew pot, roasting pans, and baking dishes from the dark recesses of our cupboards. It’s time to cook comfort food.
The traditional Thanksgiving meal is comfort food’s quintessence, a celebration of cooking. (There are few raw foods on the Thanksgiving table—at least in my house.) And because it’s also a collective sigh of gratitude for our good fortune, the meal is ablaze with a spectrum of flavors:
Savory: roasted turkey, gravy, potatoes, dressing
Buttery: mashed potatoes, gratins, buttered vegetables, pastry, pie
Herbal: sage, thyme, savory, bay, parsley
Earthy: sausage, dressing, potatoes, root vegetables, dark meat turkey
Creamy: gratins, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, whipped cream
Salty: cheeses, gratins, gravy, relishes
Sweet: squash, yams, pie
Tangy: cranberries, fruit relishes, pickles
Bitter: spinach, chard, kale, collards, walnuts, pecans
Spicy: nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper
Nutty: spiced walnuts, chestnut dressing, pecan pie
Given such variety, it’s no wonder we get flummoxed when choosing wine for the meal. No single wine pairs perfectly with all of these flavors, although some can bridge multiple dishes. Off-dry Riesling’s one good example, plus Pinot Noir and Gamay-based Beaujolais. Sparkling wines almost always work, too. That’s why these wines are traditional recommendations.
But there’s no need to stick to one wine, or a single white and red. Pouring a range of wines will delightfully echo the theme of abundance and provide diners options with the medley of flavors on the table.
Here are a few recommendations to guide your wine planning:
- Consider the style of your gathering. Nuanced wines, such as older vintages or delicate whites, can get drowned out by a boisterous party. You want wines with enough oomph to stand up to robust flavors (and robust discussion).
- Keep alcohol levels low so diners stay alert—this is especially important if your meal is served mid-day. Look for wines at or below 13% alcohol.
- Consider serving local or American wines to echo the theme of the holiday. Hard ciders, ales, and mead, especially from regional sources, are terrific with harvest foods.
- Avoid jammy high-alcohol red wines, which can feel too heavy with a big meal. Also, very savory, tannic reds like Bordeaux can overwhelm light poultry and vegetable dishes. When choosing reds, aim toward light-bodied wines with good acidity.
Below are the wine styles I think work most beautifully with the Thanksgiving meal. I’ve noted the foods with which each pairs best, listing traditional recommendations plus some alternatives to try. If you plan to offer a range of wines, consider buying one of each style, then seeing which ones diners prefer. Specific wines in bold are my top picks:
SPARKLING WINES are cleansing, refreshing, and celebratory. They pique the appetite, and bubbles scrub the palate between bites. Often low in alcohol, they’re great starter wines that some will choose to enjoy throughout the meal. Blanc de Noirs and aged Champagnes are terrific with poultry. Bubbly also pairs beautifully with hors d’oeuvres, buttery pastries, and vegetable sides.
TRADITIONAL : Champagne
ALTERNATIVE : Cava, Crémant d’Alsace, Trentodoc, Franciacorta, Prosecco
SPIRITED WHITES are also refreshing. They harmonize with lighter dishes and starters, especially vegetables and vegetarian dishes. They match the acidity of cranberry relish, pickles, and conserves, and cut the richness of butter and cream-based dishes.
TRADITIONAL : Dry Riesling
ALTERNATIVE : Chablis, unoaked Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc
WINES WITH SWEETNESS are harmonious. They integrate well with squash, yams, cornbread, and other sweet dishes, and balance salty ones like gratins and cheeses. Perceived sweetness comes from actual residual sugar in the wine, but floral and fruit notes can give a similar impression.
TRADITIONAL : Off-dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer
ALTERNATIVE : Demi-Sec Vouvray, Viognier, Muscat/Moscato, Lambrusco
FULL-BODIED WHITES are also harmonious. They balance and integrate with white-meat poultry, gravy, butter and cream-based dishes, and butter-dressed vegetables. They have the body to stand up to bold flavors but enough acidity to offset their richness, and their flavors won’t swamp delicate dishes like mashed potatoes or gratins.
TRADITIONAL : Chardonnay
ALTERNATIVE : Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Rhône white blends, Rioja Blanco
ROSÉS are refreshing. They offer lively acidity but more pronounced body than white wines, letting them stand up to richer flavors. Their berry flavors make them great with roasted poultry, vegetable dishes, and vegetarian fare, and also cut the richness of cream and butter-based dishes. They’re terrific with fruit relishes and other tangy sides, too.
TRADITIONAL : Provence rosé
ALTERNATIVE : Pinot Noir rosé, Grenache or Rhône-style rosé, Orange wines
JUICY REDS with good acidity are vibrant. They’re terrific with dark-meat turkey, and their supple tannins ensure they go well with light meat, too. They also pair peerlessly with gravy, dressings, and gratins, and they’re light enough for vegetarian fare.
TRADITIONAL : Cru Beaujolais, Pinot Noir
ALTERNATIVE : Grenache, Barbera, Dolcetto, Blaufränkisch
SAVORY, SPICY REDS with supple tannins are integrative. They complement the darker flavors on the plate: dark meat turkey, sausage or chestnut dressing, potatoes. Carignan goes with cranberry; herbal and peppery notes in Syrah and Rhône blends pick up sage, thyme, savory, and other seasonings.
TRADITIONAL : Zinfandel, Syrah
ALTERNATIVE : Zweigelt, Chianti Classico, Rhône red blends, Rioja Crianza
DESSERT WINES are either harmonious or refreshing. They must be sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the wine will seem flabby. Tawny Port and Madeira are harmonious with pecan and pumpkin pie. Sweet whites work well with fruit desserts. Sweet sparkling wines feel especially welcome after a big meal.
TRADITIONAL : Tawny or Ruby Port, late-harvest Riesling
ALTERNATIVE : Sauternes, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Recioto di Soave, Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Acqui
Still confused? Keep it simple. Grab some Riesling, Pinot Noir, and a bottle of your favorite bubbly. After all, Thanksgiving is not really about the wine, but it is—consummately—about tradition.
This article was originally published as “Choosing Thanksgiving Wines” on 18 November 2012, and is refreshed and updated annually.