What Makes a Perfect Thanksgiving Wine?
Whether you’re a new wine collector or you’ve been buying fine bottles for decades, Thanksgiving poses a unique wine pairing challenge. How do you serve so many different types of foods with just one or two wines? If you choose a wine that’s too bold and intensely alcoholic, you’ll overpower some of the lighter dishes on the table, making the entire meal harder to enjoy. But choosing a wine that’s too weak or fragile won’t do your Thanksgiving dinner any favors either. The perfect Thanksgiving wine is usually one that sits somewhere in between the boldest and the lightest wines. The bottom line? It needs to be versatile.
Here are a few Thanksgiving wine pairing tips to remember as you shop for bottles this year:
- Look at the acidity: A wine with high acidity may taste a little too astringent on its own, but when paired with dense or fatty holiday dishes, like gravy or stuffing, it helps to brighten these foods. Acid also excites your palate, allowing you to taste more flavors in your food. Wines made in cool climates will have the best acidity levels, in general.
- Avoid harsh tannins and strong oak: Since you’re choosing wines with relatively high acidity, you’ll want to avoid other strong flavors like prominent, immature tannins or heavy oak aging. Harsh tannins will coat your tongue, making it feel a bit dry, which in turn can make your tasting experience less enjoyable. Similarly, oak is such a powerful flavor and aroma that it tends to overwhelm other flavors. If the wine you choose was aged in oak, make sure the oak is mellow before you serve it.
- Residual sugar is your friend: A bone-dry wine may taste beautiful on its own, but when paired with a dish like butter-soaked mashed potatoes or sausage stuffing, it can taste harsh and unpleasant. Wines with some residual sugar pair better with these types of Thanksgiving foods, since sweetness, like acidity, plays well with fat.
- Choose bright and herbaceous wines: In addition to picking wines with high acidity, you also want to read the wine’s tasting notes before buying (if you don’t get a chance to taste it ahead of time), looking for signs of herbaceousness or citrus-like flavors. Wines with “herb” notes, like eucalyptus or sage, will pair well with savory, herb-heavy dishes. Meanwhile, a fresh, lemony white wine will brighten up the heavier foods on your plate.
- Low alcohol is a wise choice: For a food-centric holiday, low alcohol content wines are best. While high alcohol content wines can be enjoyable, they can also tire out your palate, and they don’t play as nicely with food as lower alcohol wines.
- Prioritize maturity over value: Choose either fully mature, mellow older wines, or very young wines that are designed to be drunk immediately. The value of the bottle doesn’t matter, as long as it’s ready to drink and pairs well with food. While it may be tempting to pull out a bottle of 2010 Cos d’Estournel for the celebration, if the wine’s not yet ready to drink, its potential will be wasted.
Overall, the perfect Thanksgiving wine will enhance the food around it, not compete with it–or get pushed into the background. Focus on the entire experience rather than current wine trends or market value.
Thanksgiving Wine Isn’t Always “Collectible”
One of the best Thanksgiving wine pairing tips for collectors to remember is that a collectible wine isn’t necessarily a great Thanksgiving wine. In other words, don’t serve the finest bottles from your collection just because you want to show them off to your guests. This is a hard piece of advice to follow for many collectors; after all, how often do you get to serve a bottle of Jayer at dinner? But no matter how much you want to parade your most treasured bottles around, the most important consideration is the wine’s compatibility with the food. It’s just a fact that sometimes a $50 bottle of wine is a better pairing for that green bean casserole than a $500 bottle.
Moreover, Thanksgiving is a circus tent of flavors. You have the tart cranberry sauce, the sticky sweet potatoes, the savory turkey, and the herb-heavy stuffing. Do you really want to serve your most prized bottle alongside all of these competing flavors? I’ve found that I can never fully appreciate a collectible, aged wine in this setting. In short, a wine’s market value and rarity mean nothing if you can’t taste it properly. And with so many distractions happening all at once, you may not have time to talk about the wine and enjoy it at your leisure. Instead, you should serve special wines as aperitifs right before dinner, when there are no other distractions, or save them for a night out (or in) with just one or two close friends.
The Best Thanksgiving-Friendly Wine Varieties
Although many different types of light, low alcohol wines will pair well with your Thanksgiving dinner, there are a few varieties that tend to be a hit with large crowds. I recommend choosing at least one red wine and one white wine to pair with your meal, so that your guests can decide which style they prefer.
If you’re looking for the perfect red wine for Thanksgiving, then take a look at the list of red wines below, which I’ve listed alongside their ideal food pairings. Every wine on the list goes well with nearly any type of food; these are just the ideal Thanksgiving food pairings for each wine.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a white wine for Thanksgiving, consider one of the following varieties:
There’s no need to buy every wine on the lists above–just pick one or two dishes that you most want to highlight from both the red and white wine categories. For instance, if you want turkey and green bean casserole to be the stars of the show, then you may decide to serve Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, which pair especially well with these two dishes. The most important tip to remember is that it’s best not to serve more than two wines from each list. Less is more.
More Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Tips to Remember
Thanksgiving is essentially just one big party. And, like any dinner party, you can always kick it off with an aperitif. This is your moment to show off a truly spectacular bottle for your guests, since your aperitif will be served on its own. I recommend serving a vintage Champagne to start off your Thanksgiving celebration. The bubbles excite the palate, preparing it for the meal to come. And, since your guests haven’t eaten anything yet, their palates will be clear enough to appreciate the subtle flavors of the wine. If you’re going to go all-out on any Thanksgiving bottle this year, make it your Champagne aperitif.
When the main course begins, serve your wines from lightest to darkest, as usual, unless your guests are only drinking one variety all night. Not only does a lighter wine tend to pair better with the appetizer dishes that you’ll likely serve up-front, it will also prevent your guests from exhausting their palates right away with a red. Still, there will almost always be at least one guest who drinks only red or white wine, so it’s wise to have both styles ready in order to accommodate them. Finally, save any Port or sweet white wines for dessert–pumpkin pie pairs surprisingly well with a sweet Riesling.
How to Give, and Receive, Wine This Thanksgiving
If you’re the host, no matter how far you plan your Thanksgiving wine list in advance, unexpected wines will still show up at your doorstep. Thanksgiving is an inherently hectic holiday, and many of your guests will likely bring along their own favorite bottles of wine to share. As a host, rather than dictating which wines your guests bring, or micromanaging the serving order, you have permission to relax a bit. If one of your guests gives you a bottle of wine that they’d like you to serve during dinner, you should try to fit that wine into a place that makes the most sense for the meal overall. If your guest brings Champagne, serve that first. If she brings Pinot Noir, serve it at the same time as you serve the main turkey dish. However, don’t stress out about the wines that your guests bring–simply drink the wines that you want to drink, at the times that you want to drink them, and allow your guests the freedom to do the same.
On the other hand, if you’re a guest, be aware of your host’s needs, and choose wines that make sense for the menu. Don’t bring a bold red or any other intense wine; pick wines that are versatile, and that pair well with a wide range of foods. You should also be aware that your host may have a specific wine list already planned. Don’t be offended if your host accepts your wine gift but chooses not to serve it during dinner. When in doubt, ask your host if there’s a particular wine or grape variety they would like you to bring. This will give you a sense of their preferences, and it betters your chances of having your wine served during dinner.
Thanksgiving Is Your Chance to Relax
While it can be stressful to pick out wines for an elaborate, varied meal like Thanksgiving dinner, the process should ultimately be fun and relaxing. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to micromanage a wine tasting or stress over tertiary notes in your wine. When you sit at the Thanksgiving table with your friends and family, you’re no longer an expert oenophile or collector–you’re just a dinner guest enjoying a wonderful bottle of wine with the people you love. As long as you have fun experimenting with new wine pairings, and accept the fact that your pairings may not always be perfect, you’ll enjoy the holiday season more and give some new, unexpected wines a chance to really impress you.
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