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Thanksgiving Without the Jug

Maybe a heavily oaked Chardonnay with this turkey...
Maybe a heavily oaked Chardonnay with this turkey...

by Mike Supple
published: 18 Nov 2009
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Grabbing a jug of Carlo Rossi Sangria may sound like a quick and easy solution for your Thanksgiving wine needs, but it's not the best idea. Drinking the entire jug by yourself throughout the dinner is also a bad idea. And I give you this gem based on personal experience.

More wine is consumed in the US on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year. Why? First, it is a holiday celebrated by all Americans, regardless of race, creed or religion. Second, we need a little help from the wine to digest the massive amounts of food consumed that day. And third, it's the biggest holiday gathering of friends and family; getting through dinner with the in-laws and having to listen to crazy Uncle Jack's rendition of "...Baby One More Time" - on the kazoo - requires some social lubricant.

But even though everyone is eager to pop a cork on Thanksgiving Day, the multitude of flavors spread out on the table can make choosing appropriate wines seem like a daunting task. How can you possibly find something that will pair with all of the sweet, savory, herby, tangy and creamy foods? Fortunately, there are some quick tips that can help make your pairings flawless, improve the flavors of the foods and leave all your dinner guests amazed with your food and wine knowledge.

First, don't worry about the turkey. It is a mild meat and will work with just about any wine - white, red or pink. Second, because sugar has a tendency to make big, bold wines taste sour, you should be aware that the majority of Thanksgiving foods are higher in sugar than our average meals - stuffing, creamed corn, cooked carrots, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and more.

The trick to great Thanksgiving pairings comes down to this: wines with high acidity and a lot of fruit will work better with your foods, as they will accent and highlight all of the flavors. Conversely, wines with a heavy dose of oak or tannic acid generally overpower the food and fight with the flavors.

Pick your favorites in these categories and you're good to go:

Wines That Work

  • Sparkling Wine - Most sparkling wine has great acidity, which gets the saliva going and helps to cut through the sweet and fatty foods. A light and fruity sparkling wine, like an Italian Prosecco, works well both before and during the meal.
    Sparkling examples: Canella Prosecco or Roederer Estate Brut Rose

  • Riesling - Delicious examples of this classic Alsatian and German wine can be found from Washington, California and New York. Ranging in styles from dry to sweet, the naturally high acidity and fresh apricot and peach flavors work well across many types of food. While any style will work, the slightly off-dry styles with a touch of sugar will work the best.
    Example: 2008 Loredona Riesling

  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris - Crisp, dry and refreshing. One of the most popular wines in the US and for good reason - the light melon, apple and pear flavors combined with good acidity rarely compete with any dish.
    Example: 2007 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris

  • Pinot Noir - If red wine is more your speed, then it's tough to find a better Thanksgiving pairing than Pinot Noir. This wine is naturally tart with a lot of red cherry and cranberry flavors, and it often adds a touch of fresh herbs. Perfect with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes...you get the picture!
    Examples: 2007 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir or 2007 Mirassou Pinot Noir

  • Zinfandel - A very bold wine that can work quite well on Thanksgiving due to its relatively low tannic acid levels and bright, concentrated fruit flavors. Powerful, jammy, fruity and delicious! Just keep an eye on the alcohol level - many Zins can get up to 16% or more, which, combined with the tryptophan in turkey, could put you and your guests to sleep!
    Example: 2007 Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel

  • Grenache (& Southern Rhone) - Grenache is a spicy grape with tons of cherry and blueberry flavors. Traditionally a component of blended red wines from the Southern Rhone (in France), you can also find it coming out of California and Spain (where it's called Garnacha). Much like Zinfandel, this fruity, low-tannin wine is a pleasing match for any bold red wine lover.
    Examples: 2008 Garnacha de Fuego or 2007 Delas Cotes du Rhone

Drinks That Don't

  • Cabernet Sauvignon - Some vibrant, fresh Cabernets that are made to be consumed young will have enough bright fruit to work, but this is not the best holiday to break out your heavy Napa Cabernet. The big tannins will make the food taste bitter and flat, overpowering and fighting with everything on the table.

  • Chardonnay - You might think that the traditional buttery Chardonnay would fit in fine with the heavy gravy and creamy mashed potatoes. It could work, but butter in Chardonnay often goes hand-in-hand with oak. The sugar in sweet potatoes, stuffing and even cranberry sauce would kill an oaky Chard, making it taste sour. If you must have a Chardonnay, stick with a fruity un-oaked style that is very popular in Chile and Australia.

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