The No-Stress Guide to Thanksgiving Wine

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Many people who don't think twice about the bottle they open on a regular Thursday feel like they need to do the wine thing "right" for special-occasion holiday meals. I'd like to take the worry away.

I'm not saying that the idea of wine-pairing is bunk. I've mentioned before that wine—or whatever you're drinking, really—can be thought of as a sauce for your food. Some dishes taste good with garlicky yogurt; others benefit from a splash of ginger-spiced sesame oil with scallions. Some foods are easily enhanced with chocolate sauce, while others work better with ketchup. Wine works the same way. But the loaded Thanksgiving plate is a bit of a mishmash, and every wine store has different offerings, so it's best to keep general advice in mind (though I will mention a few favorite bottles as I go).

I asked master sommelier Matt Stamp, who recently opened Compline Wine Bar & Restaurant in Napa, California, for his tips. While Stamp could offer the ideal match for basically any food on earth, his advice for Thanksgiving was not to overthink it: "There is no single perfect pairing for all the assembled dishes your in-laws [or cousins, or aunts] are contributing." And most of your guests will be happy as long as their glasses are full of something. They just want, as Stamp says, "to eat too much, drink jubilantly, cat-nap, and enjoy the company."

So what you need, Stamp says, is to make sure you have something in three basic categories:

  • To brighten the meal and highlight its toasty flavors and unctuous textures, offer white wine with a little richness and a touch of fruity sweetness.
  • To complement the earthy side of Thanksgiving dishes, pick a fruity red with delicate tannins.
  • And don't forget something fizzy! "Bubbles really help wash down these things, and turn unpleasant distant relatives bearable," Stamp notes.

If you're a guest at someone else's Thanksgiving feast, and you know they've already got the basics covered, you may want to bring along a bonus bottle of something special, such as dessert wine, or something to soothe the stomach after a few too many slices of pie.

Here's one more important tip: Get wine now, not during your last-minute grocery trip while you're in a full-on green-bean-casserole-related panic. Check wine-buying off your Thanksgiving prep list, and move on to having fun in the kitchen—and at the dining table.

How Much Wine Do I Need?

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While it's definitely possible to drink too much wine, there's no such thing as having too much wine on hand, as long as you have a safe place to store it. If you buy a case now, you can always bring any leftover bottles to dinner parties and holiday gatherings in the busy weeks to come.

You know your own crowd best, but generally, you should expect each guest to have about two drinks in the first hour of your gathering, and another one every hour or so after that. Estimate that you'll get about five glasses out of each bottle of wine, which means that if you're having a group of eight people over for a four-hour shindig, you'll need 40 drinks—about eight bottles of wine, if that's the main beverage you're offering. (You can check out our handy booze calculator to figure out just how much you'll need.) If you're going to offer punch or a few rounds of cocktails first, feel free to scale down the wine a bit. But buying a full case, even if it's a mix of bottles, may be the way to score the best discount.

What to Look for in White Wine for Thanksgiving

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If you know you're going to be serving snacks, and pouring drinks, before dinner, you may want to set aside a bottle or two of light, refreshing white wine (or ask guests to bring them, chilled). Even if there aren't oysters involved, I like to start with a clean slate of briny-minerally Muscadet, preferably the elegant Clisson or Gras Moutons from Domaine de la Pépière (about $24 and $17, respectively). If you're starting with richer fare, like cheese straws, olives, or dip, you can launch right into the heftier bottles listed below.

When you're shopping for a white wine for the main event, your key words for the wine seller are "fruity and rich, but not heavily oaked." There's a reason people often recommend grapes like chenin blanc, which has a velvety texture and honey character, and tart and juicy riesling. An austere wine can taste bitter and sour in this situation; you're looking for white wines with enough weight to stand up to the stuffing, even if Uncle Bruce insists on adding apples and chestnuts and turkey livers.

Every year, my go-to is Peter Lauer's Barrel X Riesling ($19); I've never found anyone who didn't love its terrific balance of electric acid and fragrant fruit. But this year, I'm also drawn to Alsace: Domaine Albert Mann 2013 Riesling Cuvée Albert ($25) is like biting into a cool, crisp apple while a pie scented with ginger and cloves warms in your oven.

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Pear and ginger qualities make Chenin Blanc another natural pick for the Thanksgiving table. I like to serve one with a tiny touch of fruity sweetness, to mirror the sweetness found in butter-sautéed onions and toasty stuffing. The juicy, tart Bernard Fouquet Domaine des Aubuisières 2016 Vouvray "Cuvée de Silex" ($22) works wonderfully, refreshing the palate with Key lime–like acidity.

If I sneak one more bottle in, it'll be my favorite affordable white Burgundy, which is made by Fanny Sabre, a young winemaker who trained with famed natural wine-producer Philippe Pacalet. Fermented and aged in a mix of large new and older, previously used oak barrels, her 2014 Bourgogne Blanc ($20) lets pure yellow-apple flavors shine, surrounded by a flinty, stony flavor and a whiff of heady jasmine. Your turkey deserves wine this good.

What to Look for in Red Wine for Thanksgiving

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Erica O'Neal, the wine director of Italienne in New York, says Thanksgiving is the time for red wines that are "easygoing and chuggable." Just as with white wine, you'll want a refreshing red to carry you through the day, from the first bite of pimento cheese to the final helping of mashed potatoes. Lauren Daddona, wine director of Les Sablons in Cambridge, Massachusetts, concurs, emphasizing that she looks for friendly, "ample fruit character" when choosing Thanksgiving reds. This isn't the time for knocking everyone's socks off with a tannic Barolo. Pinot Noir and Gamay are traditional picks, as these wines balance fresh fruit and earthy flavors without much of the drying tannin you'll find in, say, an aggressive Cabernet Sauvignon. "Reds with a lot of tannin tend not to be as nimble on this flavor-packed table," notes Daddona.

Five years ago, I mentioned here how great Cru Beaujolais wines are for Thanksgiving. They still are, and some of them are still affordable. But this year, my favorite way to drink Gamay is in the form of Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains, which blends Gamay and Pinot Noir. Matt Stamp, the master somm, is with me: "Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains happily lives on a crowded Thanksgiving table without elbowing for attention. It has ample tart fruit, and it's high on deliciousness." Plus, he adds, "It's cheap! Country club pours all around!"

At $15, the easy-drinking, organically grown Jane et Sylvain 2015 Bourgogne Passetoutgrains is a steal, packed with tart cherry and lightly tannic cranberry flavors. Though 2015 was a ripe vintage, this wine isn't overblown, and it balances its tannin with herbaceous freshness. I also love Stéphane Magnien's silky-smooth, polished 2015 Cuvée Densité ($18), and Domaine Hubert Lignier's 2015 Bourgogne Passetoutgrains ($19), which is a bit fuller and riper, a seamless pairing for rich, sweet-and-savory stuffing.

Passe-Tout-Grains may very well be the best deal in Burgundy, but there are still some good affordable options even if you opt for pure Pinot Noir. Les Frères Perroud 2015 Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($17) is a basic bottling with silky cherry and baked-plum flavors, soft tannins, and a touch of clove-y spice. As you move up the price scale, your choices get more compelling and complex: François Parent 2015 Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits ($27) evokes pressed violets, black tea, and juicy black currants. These are flavors you want to wrap around you like the softest blanket, and they're a golden-skinned bird's best friend.

Determined to drink domestic? If you like your Pinot tasting of stems, flowers, and delicate fruit, some Oregon offerings are going to be too much. But Kelley Fox 2015 Mirabai Pinot Noir ($35) layers its flavors softly: subtle, dusty roses and strawberries; then mushroom-y earth and minty herbs; then a rocky core at the center. Pour a glass and let it get a little air—it melds beautifully with the meal's savory herbs. While the earthy Hundred Suns 2015 Old Eight Cut Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($28) is a bit more powerful, it's not too heavy, and offers enough cranberry sauce–like acidity to brighten the meal. Think roasted tart cherries meet citrusy Earl Grey tea. Brooks 2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($25) is silky and peppery, full of rich cherry flavors that dance on the edge of tartness. It's a luscious wine, but it has the structure to cut through the richness of a celebratory meal.

Oregon's gotten in on the Gamay game, too. I'm newly obsessed with the single-vineyard options from the Willamette Valley's Martin Woods ($35), which are wonderfully fresh and structured, with all the tart fruit and tension I crave alongside a heavy meal. (I also like that, in an effort to present a wine that really shows a sense of place, these Gamays are aged in neutral barrels specially made from a local variety of oak.)

Gamay and Pinot Noir may get all the attention on Turkey Day, but I love the earthy, herbal flavors of Cabernet Franc with Thanksgiving foods. The key is to find one with enough fruit to stay on the fresh and friendly side, instead of turning into a mouthful of charred pepper. I recommend Domaine de la Chanteleuserie 2016 Bourgueil "Cuvée Alouettes" ($16), which is earthy and rustic, full of juniper, game, and dark earth. Bonus: Any extra bottles will also work fantastically with lamb come Christmas.

What to Look for in Sparkling Wine for Thanksgiving

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Brighter, lighter sparkling wines will do best in the early hours of celebration—with your oysters and appetizers, with your greetings, and while cooking. For the meal itself, you're looking for a richer option that's tinged with brioche and almond, something that won't taste too severe with all the buttery food. Vintage Champagne is stunning, but pricey. Your favorite Cava or Crémant will do if you're serving a big crowd. (Or go bold and fruity with some high-quality Lambrusco, or "sparkling cranberry sauce," as I like to call it.)

This fall, I tasted the best non-Champagne sparkling wine I've ever had, a Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noirs from Bruno Dangin ($23), and I'm determined to buy more of it before it disappears from shops until spring, when the next shipment comes in. This pinot noir–based wine's striking similarity to expensive Champagne is no accident: The grapes for this bottling are organically farmed just two kilometers across the border from the Aube, a Champagne region that's gotten a lot of attention lately. The wine is as tart as a kumquat, with wonderfully delicate fizz, but it's filled out with a carob-y, brothy richness that goes well with everything on the Thanksgiving plate.

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Can't find the Dangin? Made in the traditional Champagne method from 100% chardonnay, Vitteaut-Alberti Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée Agnès ($24) works well to straddle the aperitif/main course line, offering soft floral and yellow-apple flavors that are brightened with fragrant Meyer lemon notes. It gets especially cozy with root vegetables, like roasted parsnips and mashed potatoes, but it'll make any turkey plate feel more festive. Domaine Parigot & Richard Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Blanc de Blancs ($23) has a little more yeasty, brioche-like richness alongside its lime-marmalade flavors. Its vibrant fizz is ready to lift up your gravy, your dark meat, your stuffing, and more.

Plus a Few Bonus Bottles

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Once you've moved on to pie, your dry dinner wines won't be able to keep up, since the sugar in dessert can make less-sweet wines taste bitter and metallic. A bottle of Madeira is up to the task, though. Rare Wine Company's Historic Series Boston Bual ($30) tastes like the meeting of hard caramel and a honey lozenge: dark and rich, a little herbal, with a touch of toasted nuts. It's just sweet enough to work with apple pie. Pumpkin and (especially) pecan pies need even more sweetness; that's the time to pour an amaro, like Lucano, Nonino, or Cynar 70.

And when you're too full for another bite, there are just two moves left: Ratchet up the bitterness, or start in on the strong stuff. If you're a fan of bittersweet, vegetal Cynar, I recommend tracking down Washington, DC–produced Don Ciccio & Figli's C3 Carciofo ($38), which is flavored with several types of artichokes, along with grapefruit peels, fresh cardoon leaves, and an assortment of herbs and spices. It's sweet and gentle up front, wrapping up with an unforgivably bitter last note.

If all else fails, try whiskey. And unbuttoning your pants.

Disclosure: All wines provided as tasting samples for review consideration, except those from Pépière, Lauer, Fouquet, and Vitteaut-Alberti. All prices given are estimates as of the time of writing and may change.