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Your Most Unusual Thanksgiving Match

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 20, 2008 12:12pm ET

More wine matching advice, I would wager, gets dispensed in the week before Thanksgiving than in the entire rest of the year. Or so it seems. Everyone has an opinion on which wines do best with the turkey and the trimmings on the one day of the year that the majority of us eat more or less the same thing.

If the meal were turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and a unobtrusive vegetable, the whole universe of wine would open up. You could drink the richest Cabernet Sauvignon or the most delicate Muscadet, the most rustic Chianti or the finest white Burgundy. Or Champagne. But it’s not that easy in the real world. The traditional feast presents a whole panoply of tart and sweet flavors, including cranberry sauce and candied yams.

I learned that about three decades ago as a fledgling food editor. I got a gang of tasters together to try about 20 different wines with the traditional feast. I could wax on for hours on how the Champagne Blanc de Noir responded brilliantly with the gravy and the 10-year-old Bordeaux enriched itself with the dark meat. But as soon as the yams entered the picture, all bets were off. Only the simplest prevailed. Anything complex in the wines got lost.

One week to go and counting, my advice is to keep it simple. Drink young, fruit-forward wines. Since most of us do that most of the time anyway, that’s not much of a sacrifice. This is one time to leave that prized 1997 Barolo or the bottle of 1990 Richebourg in the cellar.

Traditionally, our family celebrates Thanksgiving with longtime friends. He’s a chef, she is a former food writer, so the food is always great. They go completely traditional, except for appetizers. I bring a box of wine, sometimes several bottles of the same one but more often a variety of wines. In the assortment I usually choose the likes of Oregon Pinot Gris, Australian Riesling, New Zealand Chardonnay, California Zinfandel, Washington Syrah and Australian Grenache. No one gets serious. We just smack our lips over Edward’s turkey and Paula’s carrot ring, and wash it down with some tasty juice.

But every now and then something jumps out and slaps us awake, forces us to pay attention. That’s why an Australian Riesling is always in the mix. Edward likes to scatter pomegranate seeds on the crab salad he serves first, and that dry, steely style of Riesling got everyone talking one year. The wine went great with the turkey, too.

Sweeter Rieslings are even better with the main part of the meal, we discovered when I threw in some Hogue Late Harvest from Washington. I meant to drink it with the pumpkin pie, but someone opened it and poured it with the turkey and started doing verbal handstands over the match. It proved once again that sweet wine works well to balance foods that may be too much for dry styles.

My favorite wine with Ed’s pumpkin pie has always been a tawny Port. Who thinks of fortified wines any more? It’s considered declassé, but not for me. The nutty flavors of a tawny, especially a nice sweet one from Australia, are perfect with the spices in the pie. Try it!

In the interest of trying something different this year, what wines have surprised you most pleasantly at the traditional Thanksgiving dinner?

James Rego
Redding, Ca., Shasta County —  November 20, 2008 3:03pm ET
I'm surprised that you omitted a Pinot Noir which is my favorite.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 20, 2008 5:10pm ET
My list was a set of examples, not meant to be exhaustive. Pinot Noir has been in the mix, but in general I find that the moderately priced regional styles do better than single vineyards or reserves because they have less to lose. We sloshed down a couple of bottles of A to Z rather happily last year.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 20, 2008 5:20pm ET
Try an LBV port or a ruby Harvey. It'll even hold up to the yams =).

Ramos Pinot 1994 LBV ... to be had for 20-25$ would go great.
David Metz
Atlanta, GA —  November 20, 2008 9:24pm ET
I love to have fun with Thanksgiving. There is always a Oregon pinot noir at my table (Good call on the A to Z), but I more excited for whites at this dinner. I have always had good luck with a good gewurztraminer or riesling. Conundrum is a interesting pairing but rather expensive for larger gatherings. This year I will probably bring Seven Daughters to the table, a wonderfully fun blend of seven grapes. It won't win any awards, but somehow everyone seems to love it, plus the price is right.
Richard Robertson
November 20, 2008 9:47pm ET
Yalumba Museum Reserve with Pumpkin or Bourbon Pecan Pie, although my all-time favorite pairing, not just for Thanksgiving, is the Museum Reserve with Girl Scout Samoa Cookies. Don't knock it until you've tried it.
Tristen Larson
Seattle WA —  November 20, 2008 10:44pm ET
We were surprised last year by how well our L'Ecole Estate Semillon went with just about everything (including the canberry sauce). Not sure how it got opened but it was the wine hit of the day.
Bruce Nichols
Naples, —  November 21, 2008 8:42am ET
If it's to be a single wine/varietal, then pinot gris is my default wine for Thanksgiving. And, make it American, I don't know that Alsace has ever seen a turkey!For value, King Estate, out of Oregon's Willamette Valley, can't be beat for quality or price. Bruce, Naples Wine News
Scott Politte
des moines —  November 21, 2008 11:23am ET
rosenblum heritage clones petite sirah for the second year in a row now.
Alex D Rot
Elkhart, IN —  November 21, 2008 4:34pm ET
Last year was a Cru Beaujolais from Chiroubles. It was an excellent match!
Jim Mason
St. John's —  November 23, 2008 7:30am ET
Donnafugata Sherazade, 50% Syrah and 50% Nero d'Avola from Sicily. Very fruit forward so it works with cranberry and good acidity so it cuts through the gravy. And for pumpkin pie nothing, IMHO, beats Vin Santo and it's caramalized flavours and balance.
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  November 23, 2008 12:36pm ET
This year, with the pumpkin cheescake that is on the menu at our friends' house, we are bringing a Dios Baco Pedro Ximenez 1970 - amazing buy and delicious with creamy, rich sweets. Try it some time if you can.
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  November 23, 2008 10:03pm ET
Eric, I agree with the Pedro Ximenez call for dessert. Also, Rutherglen muscats are great/intense dessert wine values. For still table wines, I find Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Rhone cultivars pair well with Thanksgiving menus. Rhone whites do well also, as these (other than Grenache Blanc) can stand up to a ribeye! Cheers, Steve
John Shuey
Carrollton, TX —  November 24, 2008 10:01am ET
For most of the Turkey-Day menu, I find that a Zin works well. (Caveat - I don't do sweet potatos.) As for dessert, after all that L-tripophane and wine I prefer a good cup of coffee to more alcohol.
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  November 24, 2008 12:21pm ET
For my relatives, I'll bring a caymus conundrum and a german riesling, for myself probably a zin and calif. pinot noir.
November 24, 2008 2:51pm ET
an oregon or cali pinot noir plus a viognier usually graces or turkey day table

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