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Thanksgiving Wines


Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000


Thanksgiving Wines
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

What wines will you drink with Thanksgiving dinner?

I've been asking this question recently, and I'm amazed at the variety of answers people give me. After all, we're all eating basically the same meal -- you might think there would be a consensus on the wines. But that's not the case at all.

Why not? For two reasons, I think: one gustatory, the other emotional.

First of all, while most Thanksgiving feasts center on a roasted turkey -- possibly the most versatile food for wine on earth -- the side dishes run the gamut of flavors from sweet to sour, earthy to fruity, simple to rich. No one single wine could even theoretically harmonize with every element of the meal. So there's no profit in torturing yourself to come up with the "perfect match."

Just look at what's happening in our Forum on Travel, Dining, Cooking. A request for wine suggestions to accompany an apple-wood smoked turkey brought recommendations for Sauvignon Blanc, Oregon Pinot Noir, a cru Beaujolais such as Moulin-a-Vent and California Syrah. I can envision enjoying them all.

Second, Thanksgiving focuses more on the company around the table than the food on the plate. Think of how the menu evolves: a sweet potato dish that grandmother used to make, a bean casserole that a sister brings every year, a stuffing recipe clipped from a favorite magazine ... Dishes are included because they have emotional resonance, not necessarily because they work together on a flavor level. Why should the wines be any different?

If your family orginally came from Italy, you might choose a wine from "back home." If you have guests coming from California, Texas or Virginia, why not try wines from those states? If you're dining in someone else's home, you might find out the wine passions of your host. When a wine keys into the moment in some special way, it becomes more memorable itself.

Here are plans from a few people I know who really care about wine and food. You probably won't do exactly what they do, but their thoughts might help you focus your own ideas. At the least, the diversity of their decisions should give you confidence to follow your own path.

Jim Gordon, managing editor of Wine Spectator, will open a magnum of 1986 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Private Reserve, our Wine of the Year in 1990. Jim thinks 11 years is a good age for Napa Cabs, and magnums are a good size for a crowd -- the big bottle looks festive on the table. This choice combines prestige and power in an impressive package.

Gordon Mott, managing editor of Cigar Aficionado, is a big Burgundy fan, but decided to go for Bordeaux, a 1990 Pavillon Rouge from Chateau Margaux. Why? "My host is a Bordeaux lover." As good a reason as any!

Peter D. Meltzer, Wine Spectator's auction correspondent, is cooking dinner with Michael Batterberry, editor of Food Arts magazine. Peter is insisting on red Burgundy -- a great one, the 1990 Clos de Tart. "I love the wine," he says, "so we've adjusted the menu to accommodate it, by reducing the sweetness level of the dishes." This is the foodie approach, one I admire, but it may not be suitable for everyone.

Personally, I'm having a very mixed crowd of family and friends, so I'm casting a wide net with the wines. I figure five different selections should cover it.

I'll start with sparkling wine because it sets a festive tone. (Note: Buy plenty; one bottle is rarely enough!) My Southern mother-in-law makes a terrific first course of cooked oysters in puff pastry, and that needs a serious white, both firm and aromatic. I'll break out a Condrieu. For the turkey, I'll serve a white Zinfandel, because that's what my sister likes, and also a big, fruity red, because that's what I like, this time a Syrah. (Or perhaps several -- sometimes I can't help myself!) Finally, I'll finish with a sweet Sherry. The nutty, caramel, orange peel and spicy flavors of a top oloroso marry beautifully with pumpkin pie and will carry us gently from the dining room to the football game.

If all these options have left your head spinning, you can always follow the lead of Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor of Wine Spectator. He'll be eating Thanksgiving dinner out of a can. He and his wife are hiking in the Southern California desert for a week, so wine is the last thing on his mind. He'll give plenty of thanks for a campfire stew and a cool glass of water -- and probably we can all learn a little something from that.

P.S. If you're reading this when the turkey has reached the leftover stage, I'd be interested to know what you finally settled on to accompany the feast. Let us know by posting on the Travel, Dining & Cooking bulletin board.


This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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