Your Thanksgiving Menu: Choosing the Right Wine

Let yourself off the food and wine pairing hook this Thanksgiving – it turns out it’s not as big of a deal as you might think.

The Thanksgiving Food and Wine Conundrum

As turkey day looms there’s an uptick in Thanksgiving wine advice from magazines, blogs, and wine merchants. Most talk about the difficulty of finding a wine that works well with so many different dishes. Others focus on how to pair wine with the turkey, because, well, it’s the star of the show. Even so, just about every article I read ends with a list of this year’s recommended wines and leaves me to my own devices when it’s time to make the “red or white”, or more specifically “pinot or Riesling” decision.

As part of my quest to dig a bit deeper into answers to the most oft-asked holiday questions, I once again connected with an expert from my local Central Market to get the scoop on finding the right wine for my Thanksgiving table. Just as Howard Miller educated me on all aspects of turkey buying, Paul Schunder gave me much food for thought on the subject of Thanksgiving wine selection. Paul has been with Central Market for many years and for several of those he was the Chef de Cuisine of the Central Market cooking school. He taught me much of what I know about cooking and entertaining and gave me an amazing foundation of knowledge on which to build this very blog. He also spent a couple of years in the wine department, working with shoppers every day to match wine with their food and budgets. His combined experience made him the perfect person to help me understand the ins and outs of Thanksgiving wine.

Thanksgiving Dinner: Not Your Typical Dinner Party

While I expected our Thanksgiving wine conversation to start with a discussion of varietals and blends, we started (as we should have) with the food and the people. Paul’s take on Thanksgiving dinner is that it’s not like any other dinner party you throw because in many situations:

  • You have limited control over the menu. There are all kinds of expectation (aka baggage) that comes with Thanksgiving meal. Unless you’re lucky enough to have complete authority over the menu, you’re often stuck with family favorites like green bean casserole and cornbread stuffing. You simply don’t have the luxury of crafting a menu with specific wine pairings in mind.
  • You have limited control over the guest list. Unlike a dinner party where you can choose your guests based on their pallets and wine preferences, Thanksgiving is all about friends and family (and their quirks and pickiness) that you might not otherwise mix at the same dinner party. This adds a new level of complexity when it comes time to select wine for such a diverse set of preferences and wine appreciation.
  • There are a lot of sweet tastes at the table. From sweet potatoes to cranberry sauces, marshmallows to glazes, there’s a lot of sugar on the Thanksgiving table that simply doesn’t pair well with many wines. Going back to the first item on this list, it’s not like you can just ditch these sweet dishes from the menu so you’re stuck with them.

Given all of this, the first rule of Thanksgiving wine selection is to remember you’re not operating within the status quo and to give yourself a break.

Thanksgiving Dinner Simply Isn’t About the Wine

As much as we want to have good wine pairings with Thanksgiving dinner, the plain and simple reality is that, for most of us, wine takes a back seat to the food and family at Thanksgiving. If you can keep the role wine plays in the dinner in perspective, you’ll be able to free yourself to focus less on the wine and more on the food. Similarly, you’ll probably find that your guests’ expectations for the wine at Thanksgiving aren’t the same as they might be in other dining situations. They aren’t there for the wine, they are there for family connection and tradition first, and then food, with wine coming in a distant third.

Stress Free Wine Selection

Hopefully, freeing yourself from the expectation of making the perfect pairing takes you a long way toward a more relaxed Thanksgiving wine-selection expedition. To further simplify the process, Paul offers this advice:

  • Find out what you can about your guest’s wine preferences. Does Aunt Judy only drink oaky Chardonnay from Napa? Does cousin John only like zinfandel? The more you know about their pallets and proclivities the easier it will be to hone in on specific varietals or styles.
  • Buy 2 of each color: red and white. Choose a light/dry white as well as an oaky Chardonnay to cover the white spectrum. Next, select two light and easily quaffable reds like a Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Shiraz. If your menu is extra-laden with sweet flavors, Zin and Shiraz are particularly your friends. Avoid big fat reds though because they will simply overwhelm everything else at the table.
  • Consider starting the meal with some bubbles. I’m a big fan of sparkling wine because it’s so light and also happens to be a pallet cleanser. Serve it with appetizers as a fun and cheerful way to start off the day. Don’t feel like you have to buy expensive champagne either, an American sparkler or even a French Blanc de Blanc will do just fine.
  • Skip wine with dessert and serve (spiked) coffee. One of the rules of pairing wines with sweets is that the wine should be sweeter than your dessert otherwise it will taste sour. Considering the typical Thanksgiving dessert spread – pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie, pie, pie, and more pie – you’ll have to pick up some pretty sweet dessert wines to compete. These aren’t often the favorites of many folks, and they are often pricy, so just skip them all together.
  • Break out the good stuff later. If you do have friends and family who enjoy a really great wine and you happen to have one around, enjoy it with them a few hours after Thanksgiving so it can really be appreciated. It won’t be competing with anything and you’ll be able to truly savor it.

Seek Help

You don’t have to figure this out alone. Your local wine shop gurus are more than happy to help you find the right wines in your price range – and if they aren’t, find another wine shop. While they will most likely point you toward “Thanksgiving-friendly” wines like Pinot Noir and Rieslings, you can help direct them a bit more by providing them with a few pertinent facts:

  • Any details on your guests’ wine preferences or dislikes that you may have.
  • Your budget and the number of bottles you think you’ll need.
  • Wines you’ve served in the past that have gone over well or been utter failures.
  • The flavor theme you might have going on for your dinner (Southwestern, Italian, etc).
  • How many different styles of each color of wine you’d like (red and white).
  • If you’d like to branch out a bit and try a new blend or varietal that still fits the general characteristics of a quaffable wine that won’t overwhelm the food or your guests. You’ll never know what interesting wine you might get to taste.

Some Suggestions to Get You Started

In the tradition of any good Thanksgiving wine post, I’ll close with a collection of Paul’s recommendations for Thanksgiving wines. He has great taste, so I guarantee you won’t go wrong with any of these.

All of the prices listed here are the current retail cost for these wines at our Austin, Texas Central Market. Prices will vary by region and retailer, but these are a good guide for what to expect.

And finally, here are a couple of other lists of Thanksgiving-friendly wines from sources I trust:

Happy turkey and toasting.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great tips about the different wines to serve at Thanksgiving!

  2. You hit the nail on the head with this post. My wife and I roll our eyes when it comes to Thanksgiving because everyone has their favorite side dish and in the end the menu is always the same. I’m trying to slide in a new brussels sprout this year and it’s going over like a lead balloon… but back to the point of your post.

    I find that gewurztraminer is my go to wine for Thanksgiving. It’s got enough depth to stand up to some of the heavier dishes, but is light enough to play nice with the other stuff. For red I almost always serve a pinot noir, but love the idea of having a big beefy cabernet (or barolo) waiting in the wings for those that want something with more substance later.

    Thanks for getting the ideas flowing and have a great Thanksgiving!

    Jim | @jimstorer

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