Thanksgiving is tough: There's the cleaning and the prepping, the cooking and the general stress involved in having a dozen or so friends and family members—often with strong stances on issues surrounding dark meat versus white meat, pecan pie versus pumpkin, stuffing in the bird or out—all seated at the same table together. Given such potential for conflict, the last thing you want to worry about is every holiday's saving grace: wine. But I'm here to offer you some tips on how to find wines that will satisfy everyone's needs—and, as a bonus, won't lead to a credit card bill that results in even more anxiety.
The secret to Thanksgiving drinks is to focus on versatile bottles that feel festive and special but aren't too pricey. This is a day, after all, when you're going to want quantity in addition to quality. Do not, under any circumstances, try to pick a wine to pair with each individual dish. That'll get you nowhere but frustrated. The key is to choose wines that will go with just about everything—your stuffing and your green bean casserole, your biscuits and your bird.
That said, you also have to account for the varying wine preferences of each individual guest. While Cousin Sarah may be inclined toward a funky, earthy Jura red with her roast turkey, Grandma might find a wine that reminds her of gardening a little off-putting.
My advice: You're looking for wine that works seamlessly with all the different elements—salty, sweet, fatty, earthy, fruity, herbal, gamy—that will be piled onto the plate together. Medium-bodied wines are best: Thanksgiving isn't exactly a light meal, and your wine needs a little guts to shine. A feather-light Muscadet will get lost in the mix, while a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon could overpower. Rounder, more lush and fruit-forward white wines will counterbalance the savory flavors of the meal, while bright, juicy reds with a little spice and earthy flavor can act as more of a complementary accent to the rich, roasted flavors on the plate.
When you're looking for the best deals on the best-tasting wines, where you shop (and when) matters. Find a wine store with helpful employees, and don't feel bad about giving them a challenge. Go when the store's not too crazy-packed and the salespeople aren't too busy. (The day before Turkey Day is not the calmest.) Let them know that you're shopping for Thanksgiving, and be totally clear about your per-bottle budget. They're trained for this, and a good store will be staffed with folks who've tasted all the wines they're recommending.
Wine pros have a few secrets up their sleeves—they know, for example, which star producers offer affordable entry-level bottles. Often featuring the good-but-not-best fruit from the estate or from specially contracted vineyards, some of these may not have the winemaker's name on the label. Instead, these hidden gems might use what's called a "second label," especially if they're the products of special collaborations or side projects with another winemaker. A few to keep an eye out for: Chris Brockway's California "Broadside" collaboration, Domaine Binner's Saveurs label, Marcel Lapierre's Raisins Gaulois Beaujolais, Patrick Piuze's Val de Mer white Burgundies and sparkling wines, Leitz's "Leitz Out" Riesling, and the white and red Rhône blends Eric Texier does under the name Chat Fou.
Here's another tip: Ask to be pointed toward lesser-known grapes and regions. Rather than springing for pricey Chardonnay from Meursault, look for Aligoté from Burgundy's Côte Chalonnaise. Seek out a Grenache/Syrah blend from southwestern France's Languedoc instead of a big-ticket Hermitage Syrah. Truth is, a Barolo might be too intense for the Thanksgiving meal, but a younger Nebbiolo from the Langhe region will be delicious (and quite possibly under 20 bucks). And, as much as your local wine sellers might love Champagne, they should also be able to point you to legit, and less expensive, sparklers from other regions to pop and pour.
There's been a lot of talk lately about good-quality boxed—and even canned—wines, and neither should be overlooked. Both of these options are less expensive to buy, in part because it's cheaper to ship the wine without that heavy glass bottle. Cans might come in especially handy if you have an outlier at your table—maybe Mom is the only fruity-white-wine drinker in the bunch, but hopefully won't require an entire bottle of her own. Get her a can of peachy, grapefruit zest–y Underwood Pinot Gris ($12 for the equivalent of two glasses). Want to be prepared just in case Aunt Bertha is craving rosé? Grab a four-pack of Alloy Wine Works' refreshing, strawberry-and-guava-like Central Coast Grenache rosé, and you'll be ready for family dinners to come ($30 for a four-pack of 500mL cans—each one will pour about three glasses).
The volume-to-price ratio is really what makes wines in these formats such a great deal. Fuoristrada's fresh, medium-bodied, black pepper–spiced 2014 Côtes du Rhône comes in a one-liter Tetra Pak for $17; that's about $3.50 per glass. And for around $38, you can get a three-liter box of Pascal Lambert Chinon in all its tangy-cherry and charred-bell-pepper glory. Don't love the idea of a box of wine on the formal dining room table? Just pour it into a decanter or glass pitcher before serving. Problem solved.
Here's another little pro tip that'll help save you money: Many wine shops offer a discount if you buy a full case of wine (12 bottles). Since Thanksgiving is just the kickoff event of winter entertaining, having a case of wine on hand is never a bad idea, and many stores will knock off 10% or more if you're willing to stock up.
Finally, take this list with you! Even if your local store doesn't stock our favorite bubbles, whites, and reds, they may be able to recommend something similarly delicious.
My strategy for Thanksgiving sparkling wine is this: Avoid Champagne.
Don't get me wrong, I love, love Champagne, but there's a whole world of awesome not-Champagne out there that deserves our attention and is unquestionably easier on the wallet. France alone has seven regions making Champagne-method sparklers (which allow a few different grapes in the mix), and there's also Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco—plus elegant Franciacorta and vibrant cranberry-herbal Lambrusco.
Prefer to drink local? American sparkling is on the rise, with especially tasty options made in the pétillant naturel (or pét-nat) style. These wines are bottled just before they finish fermenting, so that the CO2—a by-product of the fermentation process—gets trapped in the bottle and lends the finished wine a gentle fizz. In California, Michael Cruse makes an exceptional strawberry-tangy sparkling Valdigué rosé rendition, while Bellwether in the Finger Lakes knocks it out of the park with dry, nervy Riesling bubbles.
Here are a few others to add to your shopping cart.
Avinyó 2012 Cava Reserva Brut ($15)
If you love Champagne's yeasty side, Avinyó's dry Reserva Cava is the budget bottle for you. Based on the traditional Macabeo grape—which often offers toasted almond and floral flavors—this bubbly boasts that classic fresh-bread aroma of Champagne and yet tastes very bright, with a pretty, delicate fizz. It's like getting to play in an orchard filled with nectarines, pears, and grapefruit, located next to a garden of herbs and white flowers. It's what I want in my glass after stealing a piece of cornbread or a roll hot from the oven.
Château Tour Grise 2004 Saumur Brut Non Dosé ($19)
Still versions of Chenin Blanc are guaranteed A+ Thanksgiving partners, thanks to rich apple and pear flavors and a little nutty accent, but this vintage-dated, non-dosé sparkling version also proves to be a boss Champagne alternative. It does a great job of mimicking the real deal, with plenty of rich, toasty notes, lemony freshness, and a powerful sparkle. It could easily go well with a first course of creamy cauliflower or pumpkin soup, and keep you happy all the way through to the closing bites of pecan pie.
Val de Mer NV Crémant de Bourgogne Non Dosé ($19)
This is the bottle to open as soon as your guests arrive. Val de Mer is the second label from star Chablis winemaker Patrick Piuze, who's known for his lean, steely Chardonnays. This Crémant de Bourgogne is bottled without dosage (the sugar and wine solution that determines the final sweetness level of a sparkling wine), so it drinks super dry, with an electric acidity. The appetite-whetting wash of tangy citrus and subtle salinity means it's a great choice to enjoy during pre-dinner snacking (in our house, that means shrimp cocktail and crostini with Gorgonzola-pistachio dip).
Salinia "Twenty Five Reasons" Rosé ($21)
You've gotta judge your crowd on this one, but this funky little pét-nat rosé is a fun option for those looking for something offbeat. Tart and tangy, with a fresh, full froth, it might remind you a bit of a bubbly sour beer, and it works great with Thanksgiving food. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, this dry sparkler offers a lot of texture from fermentation with the grape skins, and an abundance of pickled-berry flavors make it an excellent opposites-attract partner for all those meaty, savory items on the plate (well, hello there, sage and sausage stuffing).
Best Blancs for Your Bucks
There's a reason cranberry sauce has long held its place as the official Turkey Day accompaniment. It's a yin-and-yang relationship that just, well, works: The tangy condiment is juicy and fruity and tart, and it offsets the salty, umami-rich flavors in the meal. Your white wines can work the same way, offering that juicy-fruity counterpoint in liquid form.
In general, you'll do well with a bright and round Riesling from Alsace or Germany's Rhinegau or Pfalz region; nutty and citrus pith–y Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley; ripe and not-too-acidic domestic Pinot Gris; Chardonnay, of course; or even a medium-bodied, orchard fruit–driven white Rhône blend (white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or something like the Marsanne/Roussanne from California's Qupé vineyards). Or any of the rockin' bottles below.
Domaine Berthenet 2014 Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne Aligoté ($16)
As much as I'm a fan of Burgundy's Chardonnay—and the village-level options from the Mâconnais can be great turkey wines—when you're looking for value, there's something to be said for the grape's less doted-upon cousin, Aligoté. Famous in the region's more southerly Côte Chalonnaise village of Bouzeron, the grape is known for producing fresh, mineral-driven whites. Though they can sometimes feel a little too light, this bottle is on the fleshier side, with a richer body to support the mouthwatering lemony acidity and lean, stony quality. It's just what we're looking for: a wine that plays well with all the elements on the table (but works especially well as a counter to another spoonful of buttery mashed potatoes).
Bethel Heights 2014 Pinot Gris ($16)
Pinot Gris is a natural addition to the Thanksgiving meal: Its round texture supports weightier dishes, and its juicy fruit provides a nice contrast to all that salt and fat. Stateside, Oregon is the leader when it comes to this grape. This bottle's a good deal, showcasing the grape's talent for balancing the flavors of fleshy peach, pear, and ripe honeydew melon with racy mandarin orange acidity and a hit of green herbs and spicy ginger.
Chateau Musar 2012 "Jeune Blanc" ($19)
This offering from the late, legendary Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar represents a great value for quality white wine. This bottling is a mix of Viognier, Vermentino, and Chardonnay, and it isn't shy, standing up with medium body and a round, silky texture, a touch of floral flavor, and a black-licorice bite. If you like dry Chenin Blanc's beeswax-y quality, this wine's for you, and it's a great match for the earthier elements on the plate, like charred Brussels sprouts and roasted maple-glazed carrots.
Stagård 2014 "Handwerk" Grüner Veltliner ($21)
Some Grüner Veltliner is lean and citrusy, with a mix of peppery vegetal notes. But riper, rounder styles work better on Thanksgiving—if it's coming from Austria, look for the word smaragd on the label, which means the grapes were picked later in the harvest but still fermented dry. This wine, organically grown at a historic family estate, has a lemon zest–driven vibrancy and a wild-fennel freshness that just might lead to you polishing off the whole bottle with your start-of-the-meal salad.
Domaine Ostertag 2012 Vignoble d'E Riesling ($22)
Alsatian Riesling is a dry wine that combines the nutty richness you'd find in a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc with the vibrant acidity and ripe peachy-apple fruit of a German Riesling. It's the best of both worlds, and exactly what I want to sip with a bite of turkey slathered in gravy. This one—farmed biodynamically from 30-plus-year-old vines—bursts out of the glass, smelling like toasted hazelnut and filling your mouth with a juicy, tart crabapple-pear tang.
Red Hot Deals
With all the food I pile on my plate each Thanksgiving, the last thing I want is a big, heavy red wine. The best reds for Thanksgiving are lush and full of bright fruit, but lean toward the lighter side of medium body and offer not-too-aggressive tannins and fresh, punchy acidity. They won't weigh you down or overpower a dish's more delicate flavors, and they'll add herbal, smoky, earthy notes that are great with turkey and stuffing.
Ask for Gamay or cool-climate Pinot Noir; consider Cab Franc from the Loire Valley, gulpable reds like Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt from Austria and its neighbors, and any number of blends from the southern regions of France's Languedoc-Roussillon. Or pick up any of the favorites listed below.
Domaine Aliane 2011 Coteaux Bourguignons Gamay ($15)
Gamay gets a lot of attention around Thanksgiving, and with good reason—so many of the lighter, earthy, cherry-forward reds produced in Beaujolais's 10 crus are dynamite with the holiday's bounty. But Beaujolais isn't the only place for quality Gamay in Burgundy, as this bottle proves. The new-ish Coteaux Bourguignons appellation allows winemakers to use grapes sourced from throughout the entire Burgundy region (including Beaujolais). Perhaps there's some power of suggestion at play, but it definitely feels like this wine offers a little bit of everything that's great about Burgundy's reds. Bright cherry flavors mingle with earthy tea leaf and mushroom-y aromatics; the wine is as identifiably autumnal as everything on your plate.
Pfneiszl 2012 Kékfrankos ($15)
Austrian reds are both budget- and food-friendly; Blaufränkisch, in particular, offers a charming combination of cherry, smoke, and black pepper spice, and delicious examples often sell for under $25 a bottle. The same grape grows in neighboring Hungary, where it's called Kékfrankos. That unfamiliar name on the label may be one reason it's offered at even better prices. This is one bottle to stock up on: Hailing from a family estate now run by two sisters, it's lively and fresh, with a spritzy tart-berry acidity to brighten the classic bitter chocolate, peppercorn, and tea leaf flavors.
Eric Texier 2013 "Chat Fou" Côtes du Rhône ($16)
The powerful, funky wines from renowned Rhône natural-wine leader Eric Texier can cost $30, $50, or more per bottle, but his "Chat Fou" label lets you try his work for far less. This Grenache-based blend has plenty of ripe, lush red fruit, smoky minerality, and spice. Sometimes Côtes du Rhône can be a little jammy, but here it's kept in check thanks to the inclusion of local white grapes Clairette, Chasselas, and Marsanne in the blend. Those white grapes contribute to the wine's current of tart acidity, keeping you refreshed as you refill your plate and drink another glass.
Lioco 2012 "Indica" Mendocino County Carignan ($19)
If you're a fan of the combo bite—turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce piled onto the fork together—this Carignan is the ideal partner. It's loaded with plush black cherry and cranberry flavors, seasoned with a distinctive meaty, leathery spice and charred smokiness. It's reminiscent of Syrah in some ways, but lighter, with more intense acidity. You'd traditionally find Carignan among the wines of southwestern France, but examples like this prove it's made a happy home in California.
Arnaldo-Caprai 2012 Montefalco Rosso ($22)
Drumstick and dark-meat enthusiasts will love this medium-bodied Sangiovese-based wine from Umbria, in central Italy. Savory stewed tomato, black olive, and dried herbal notes wrap around your tongue, but there's plenty of juicy red fruit and acidity to balance it all out. If your family serves lasagna as part of the Thanksgiving feast, this red's a great accompaniment. Looking for a lighter Italian option? Go for an earthy Schiava from the northeastern Alto-Adige region, or an herbal and slightly more tannic Langhe Nebbiolo from Piedmont.
Note: The 2012 Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso was provided as a sample for review consideration.