When it comes to pairing wines with holiday foods, Thanksgiving presents the ultimate challenge. The problem is not the turkey but everything else that goes with it. For example, Dorothy Gaither and John Brecher, former wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, wrote on more than one occasion that older California Cabernet Sauvignons were their favorite turkey wines. Maybe so, but what happens when you add on sweet potatoes with marshmallows, chestnut or oyster studded dressing, and sweet and tart cranberry sauce? This eclectic assortment is enough to drown out many wines including those California Cabs.
What to do? First, keep the fine reds from Burgundy and Bordeaux and the Cabernet Sauvignons from California in the cellar until Christmas and New Years (see below). What you want is a wine—actually, a combination of wines is a good way to hedge your bets—that contains plenty of fruit and even a touch of sweetness to match the fruit and sweetness in this meal. Wines should also have good acidity to keep the palate refreshed.
A good candidate for Thanksgiving is Beaujolais. It’s lively and fruity and can be served lightly chilled. The best Beaujolais wines are called Beaujolais Crus or growths, each with its own appellation contrôlée: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgan, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour. A step down are wines labeled Beaujolais Villages. Beaujolais Nouveau, the “new” Beaujolais from this year’s harvest, is a festive and seasonal choice.
A young, fruity Pinot Noir from America is an excellent idea for Thanksgiving because Pinot Noir is a notably food-friendly wine. California Pinots tend to be more fruit forward than their French counterparts and thus more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Oregon Pinots are somewhat earthier but still quite fruity. Lighter style Rhone wines such as Cotes du Rhone are also worth considering. Chianti is another possibility because it is a good food wine but also because its high acidity can cut through some of the richness of the meal.
Zinfandel is my favorite Thanksgiving red wine for two reasons. First, Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday and Zinfandel (despite its Croatian parentage) is the all-American wine. Second, Zinfandel has plenty of fruit and a characteristic pepperiness or spiciness that helps it stand up to the jarring flavors of Thanksgiving, but try to keep the alcohol levels within reason. Despite being disdained by wine aficionados, White Zinfandel isn’t a bad suggestion either. It has the requisite fruit and sweetness, though look for those on the drier side.
As for white wines, I’d go with an Alsatian Pinot Gris or Riesling or a German Riesling. German Halbtrocken Rieslings have a touch of sweetness (Halbtrocken means “half dry”). Spatlese Rieslings are richer and sweeter. Both have excellent acidity.
Another advantage of German Rieslings is that they are typically lower in alcohol, something many of us are concerned about during the holidays.