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The Right Wine to Pair with Every Thanksgiving Course

Thanksgiving dinner is a troublemaker. It's the class clown of holiday dinners. The meal is a mash-up of contrasting, often competing, sometimes outright conflicting flavors. It's just too much for any one wine to handle.

And that's the good news. Because Thanksgiving gives us the perfect excuse to experiment with a variety of wines. But, if you're still undecided after checking out these recommendations, don't be shy about asking for advice anyplace that carries a wide variety of wines, such as Whole Foods Market.

Thanksgiving dinner on table with wine glasses

Photo by Meredith

But before we get to the meal, there are guests to greet. And that means bubbles.

Welcoming Your Guests

Bubbles make the bash! Nothing compares on special occasions. Sparkling wine and champagne cocktails are always a festive way to kick off the party.

How do you choose to sparkle? There's true French Champagne, of course. Wonderful, yes, but pricey. For a less expensive burst of bubbles, try Italian Prosecco. It's also festive and flavorful -- and makes great champagne cocktails. Another good value is Cava, the sparkling wine from Catalonia, Spain. Beyond Champagne, delicious (and cheaper) French bubbles can be found in regions like Burgundy, Alsace, and the Loire -- look for the word Crémant on labels. And if you want to keep closer to home for this most American meal, select sparkling wines from the United States -- California, Oregon, Washington, New York, and New Mexico are making some real winners.

Nectar of the Gods

Nectar of the Gods | Photo by DIZ

Thanksgiving Appetizers

Hang on to those bubbles for a bit. Fact is, sparkling wine is so much more than a toasting wine. It's a perfect partner for food. Its frisky acidity keeps the palate refreshed and on alert for whatever comes next. Bubbles are terrific partners with appetizers, including these.

Stuffed Mushrooms

Photo by Meredith

Turkey Dinner

As we hinted above, the full, traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner has a ton going on. Turkey takes its star turn, of course. But, actually, the bird has the easy job. It's almost like a blank canvas, allowing other more assertive flavors to express themselves. Meanwhile, the sweet and tart cranberry sauce, roasted herbed vegetables, savory stuffing, vinegary green beans, and creamy gravy are battling it out, making the match...interesting.

Of course, once you've popped the bubbles, you might find that sparkling wine is versatile enough to carry you through the entire Thanksgiving meal, from the sweet-sour cranberry sauce to the pecan pie crowned with whipped cream. And the wine's relatively low alcohol won’t overwhelm you or the meal.

But there are other options. Dry Riesling's acidity and slight touch of sweetness are nice counterpoints to salty gravy-slathered turkey and mashed potatoes and a nice companion for sweet cranberry sauce. The brisk acidity and herbal characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc make it a great choice, too. Other favorite white wines are Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Roast turkey with white wines

Photo by Meredith

If you lean more toward red wine, lighter reds with a bit of acid and some fruitiness are good choices, like a fruity Zinfandel (look for lower alcohol versions -- Zinfandels can be big booze bombs), an earthy Pinot Noir, or a food-friendly Barbera from Italy.

Of course, the best choice might very well be to offer both red and white -- and let the guests choose for themselves. Provide a couple glasses at each guest's table setting and let her try a splash of white here, a sip of red there, before settling on a favorite. Offering a few choices can also make for fun dinner conversation. You can also split the difference and go with a rosé -- sparkling rosé is a great choice.

Stuffing

Here's an idea: Let the stuffing choose the wines. When you blow out basic bread stuffing with assertive flavors like sausage, mushrooms, or oysters, you can let these flavors determine the wines you pair with dinner. With oyster stuffing, consider a crisp minerally, unoaked Chardonnay or maybe a dry sparkling wine. Try reds with sausage stuffing -- a Rhone blend, Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache. With a wild mushroom stuffing, try a Pinot Noir. These wines will stand out with the stuffing and play nicely with the rest of the meal, too.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

Photo by Meredith

OK, but do you always prefer red wine? We can help with that, too. Try these 6 Tricks to Make Thanksgiving Red-Wine Friendly.

Goose or Duck

If you're going for less traditional Thanksgiving birds, like goose or duck, try red wines that are a little heftier, like Syrah/Shiraz, reds from the Rhone region of France, and fuller, richer versions of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. They can handle these fattier, more flavorful birds.

Roast Duck and Merlot

Roast Duck and Merlot | Photo by Meredith

Baked Ham, Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Crown Roast

With baked ham, try a dry Riesling (it's a classic with many pork-based dishes). A German Riesling paired with a salty, slightly sweet ham is one of the world's great matches. If you prefer red, go with a lighter red like a slightly chilled Beaujolais or Pinot Noir.

Ham and trimmings with white wine

Photo by Meredith

Depending on how it's prepared, pork tenderloin can go this way or that: it might want a dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer if it's roasted with a spicy crust; or a fruity red wine, like Merlot or Zinfandel, if it's roasted with dried fruit, braised in a wine sauce, or stuffed with mushrooms or blue cheese.

Roast Beef, Lamb and Venison

I have friends who save the roast turkey for the off season. They always make roast beef on Thanksgiving. Which gives them the perfect opportunity to break out the big fellas. Cabernet Sauvignon is an ideal choice here. Merlot and meaty Syrahs are also great matches. The proteins in the meat will help smooth out the tannins in these big, bold wines.

Roast Beef with Red Wine

Photo by Meredith

Thanksgiving Desserts

Did you save room for pie? How about a wee glass of fortified wine on the side? With pumpkin or pecan pie, try a glass of port or sweet sherry (Olorosso, for example). A sweet late-harvest Riesling would also be terrific -- a great choice with apple pie, too. Port with chocolate pecan pie would be a real prince of a pairing. For the very brave and/or foolish, a taste of Kentucky bourbon or a splash of aged sipping rum with a slice of pecan pie would hit the spot; so would a nip or two of Calvados (the apple brandy from Normandy) with apple pie -- save a napping spot on the couch for these folks.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Chocolate Pecan Pie | Photo by Meredith

A Word about Serving Thanksgiving Wines

During the cooler holiday season, red wines should be fine served at room temperature. A good range to shoot for is between about 58 and 68 degrees. (Serve lighter reds a bit cooler than bigger reds like Cabernet Sauvignon.) However, if you keep your reds in the kitchen, and your kitchen is a kiln after many hours of dinner preparation, move them to a slightly cooler room, like the basement or an unheated utility room near the garage--or stick them in the fridge for 15 minutes before dinner. As for your whites, try taking them out of the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving.

If you end up with several opened but unfinished bottles of wine, there are ways to preserve them. One way is to refrigerate them. The cold climate will slow the chemical changes that are conspiring to turn your wine to vinegar.

Another method is to transfer the leftover wine into a smaller bottle. This helps because a smaller bottle will have less wine-trashing air in it. You can also buy fancy vacuum contraptions that suck the air out of the bottle. Or, perhaps best of all, you can gather the crowd around the table the next evening for a feast of leftovers and finish what you started.


Check out our complete collection of Thanksgiving Recipes.


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About Carl Hanson

Carl will eat that. Share with him @CarlNo9 on Twitter.