Thanksgiving brings a flurry of wine recommendations from bloggers and wine writers all over the country, almost as if choosing the right wine on Turkey Day is more important than any other meal of the year.
Thanksgiving is certainly America’s great day of eating and drinking, so I can understand the added attention given to brining, stuffing and roasting the perfect bird. But when it comes to wine, I can’t say I’m entirely convinced that I’ve found the “perfect” bottle for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, because it is essentially a mishmash of sweet and savory flavors served all at once in great abundance.
One approach, though, is to go all-American for this all-American day. Many often suggest Pinot Noir, and it’s true no other variety marries as well with roasted chicken, duck or turkey than this classic Burgundian grape. The reason Pinot Noir works so well is that it is medium in weight, moderate in tannins (which cause that mouth-gripping sensation similar to over-steeped tea) and high in acidity. The acid in Pinot Noir is especially important as it refreshes our palate between bites of food, making each forkful as tasty as the last. Look to both California and Oregon for high-quality examples of Pinot Noir in a range of prices.
Zinfandel is often cited as America’s own fine-wine grape. Zinfandel shares its lineage with Primativo, a southern Italian grape varietal, but both are now believed to have originated in Croatia. However, it’s likely Zinfandel made its way to California by way of Italian immigrants. Primativo is usually made into a humble table wine in Italy, but Californians embraced Zinfandel and succeeded in turning it into a serious wine worthy of international praise. The only problem with Zinfandel for Thanksgiving is that most of it is high in alcohol (between 14 percent and 17 percent), making for a very sleepy post-meal afternoon. A few California wineries produce Zinfandel in a lighter style similar to Beaujolais and with alcohol levels below 14 percent, which is great for turkey and all the fixings.
Speaking of Beaujolais, by now you’ve hopefully recovered from your Beaujolais nouveau festivities (the young wine is always celebrated each year on the third Thursday of November). Beaujolais is a French wine from the Burgundy region and is produced from the Gamay grape. The headache-inducing nouveau version is soft and fruity, but the more serious “Village” and “Cru” Beaujolais are similar in weight to Pinot Noir. Beaujolais often gets a nod as a great Thanksgiving red. It’s softer and fruitier than Pinot Noir and is highly gulpable. The good news is that Beaujolais will likely have less alcohol than most California Pinot Noirs and most Zinfandels, which is a good thing for such a long and heavy meal.
We’ve been focusing on the turkey but the other challenge with Thanksgiving is that mishmash of sweet and savory flavors that finds its way onto the plate. Turkey, ham and savory dressing work well with all of the wines suggested above, but what about the sweet potato casserole, the ambrosia salad and cranberry sauce? No matter the meal or situation, a wine must always be sweeter than the food it’s paired with. When it’s not, the wine will taste astringent (try a doughnut and a glass of orange juice). Off-dry styles of German Riesling or Vouvray from France or even a light frizzante Moscato d’Asti from Italy all work perfectly with all of these sweet flavors. Best of all, they’re all low in alcohol, between five and 13 percent, which means we might make it all the way to the pumpkin pie without a nap.