Find Your Feasting Wine: A Guide to Thanksgiving Food and Wine Pairing

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love gathering around the dinner table with family and friends, reflecting on what each of us is thankful for, and then descending face first into the best feast of the year.  Yum yummm.  SO EXCITED!

Wine usually plays second fiddle on the Thanksgiving table.  The diversity of the feast makes for a tough food pairing problem.  Which wines can you count on to span the gustatory chasm between a chicory salad with a walnut vinaigrette, to a roasted turkey and gravy, to sweet potatoes, all the way through cranberry sauce?  On Thanksgiving, we’re confronted with dishes that run the gamut from light and tart, through savory and rich, with a little sweetness sprinkled in throughout. 

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Before we dive into the Thanksgiving recommendations, let’s take a quick detour:

Feast Friendly Wines

Thanksgiving, summertime barbecue cookouts, and potluck dinners with friends have one important thing in common: they all call for ‘feast friendly wines’.

What makes a wine ‘feast friendly’?

There are entire books that explore the topic of pairing wines with food.  If you really want to nerd out, my favorite is ‘What to Drink with What You Eat’ by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.  Lots of good knowledge there, but we’ll keep it simple for today.

As I mentioned above, the challenges of a feast are a bit different than a single entree dinner.  There are lots of different proteins, spices, veggies, dressings, and whatever you’d call cranberry sauce, on the table at once. This means that we have to toss aside some classic pairing techniques such as ‘matching palate weights’ and ‘if it grows together, it goes together’.  This leaves us with a few good rules of thumb that we can still lean on:

1)      Feast wines are tart

Generally we’re going to look for a wine with firm or even elevated acidity.  If your food is more acidic than you’re wine, the wine will seem flabby and lame, and we do not want that.  Wines with firm acidity help to clear the palate with each sip, getting you ready for that next bite of deliciousness. 

2)      Feast wines are low to moderate in tannin

Big, tannic Cabs and Syrahs are amazing with a grilled steak, the tannins cutting through the marbled fat and the char on the outside of the steak.  However, these tannins will overwhelm lighter proteins like turkey, chicken and pork, and all of the lighter veggie sides won’t stand a chance.  Let’s find something with lower tannin for feast day.

3)      Feast wines are lower in alcohol

Alcohol does a lot of important things in a wine, but for our purposes in choosing a wine to feast with, alcohol adds weight and body to a wine.  Again, this is great if we’re matching a Napa Cab with a hearty chunk of steak or a Barolo with a creamy bowl of mushroom risotto, but we’ve got lots on the table with a variety of different textures.  For a feast, it’s important that the wine does not overwhelm anything on the table, which is why we’re fans of lower alcohol wines for this occasion. 

Now that we've got some basic ground rules, let get on to those recommendations...

White wines

Sauvignon Blanc – A highly aromatic grape with firm acidity.  From the old world, I’d suggest a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume, from the Loire Valley in France.  You’ll see bright citrus on the nose, distinctive stony minerality, and racy acidity on the palate.  If you’re looking for a riper, fuller style of Sauvignon Blanc, I’d suggest checking out wines from the Washington State or the central coast of California.  These new world regions are a bit warmer than the cool Loire, so they will show some light tropicality that you won’t see in the old world examples.

Gruner Veltliner – A native of Austria, there are even wonderful examples coming out of Michigan (!) these days.  Gruner will show you tart green apple on the nose, along with a savory, peppery character. This is a lively wine on the tongue, young bottlings even show a slight spritz, that is a lovely palate cleanser between bites of food.

Red Wines

Pinot Noir – The reigning champion of the Thanksgiving table, Pinot can create classic, versatile feasting wines.  You’ll typically see bright aromas of red raspberries, cherries, cranberries, with notes of earthiness giving the wine a solid foundation.  For Thanksgiving, I'd go with either an old world Pinot Noir from Burgundy (if you like a bit more minerality and austerity), or a new world Pinot from the Wilamette Valley or New Zealand (if you’re looking for a riper, more fruit-forward style).  I’d avoid any Pinot that tips the scale above 14% alcohol for feasting, this may be an indication of a richer style less likely to play nice with your meal.

Zinfandel – Another versatile food wine, Zinfandel will usually show a riper, jammier fruit profile than Pinot.  Ripe blackberries, raspberry liqueur, black pepper, and some light impressions of earth and oak will be common features in these wines.  Zinfandel is low in tannin, smooth and friendly, making it a sure crowd pleaser at the table.  Zins can get very ripe, and can sometimes be vinified into 15.5%-16.0% ABV juggernauts, so be on the lookout for more restrained representations.  Look for a Zinfandel in a lighter style, something that tips the scales 13.5%-14.5% alcohol is probably a good bet. 

I hope this post was a helpful guide to a few wine styles that will work well for your next feast.  If you’ve got any specific questions or would like any specific recommendation, please feel free to email me, or leave a comment at the bottom of this post and I’ll be sure to get to it the morning of Thanksgiving at the latest.  Also, do you think I missed anything?  Please let us know about your go-to feasting wine, we'd love to try it too!

Happy thanksgiving to all!




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