Thanksgiving Wine Made Easy: A Sommelier's Advice

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[Poured wine photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Working as a sommelier has taught me two things about pairing food and wine:

1) It's really fun, and 2) Sometimes people take it too seriously.

The right wine can truly make every bite of your dinner taste better. A great pairing can get your heart racing—and even bring tears to your eyes. But when we search for the ideal wine, sometimes we go overboard. It's like trying to get that perfect group picture on a special occasion—that photo, without Uncle Tim sneezing or Aunt Marge blinking, is great to have, but sometimes just being in the moment is more important.

Today, I want to help you choose delicious Thanksgiving wines. These bottles will help every element of the meal shine. That turkey you've roasted, your creamy mashed potatoes—they'll be tastier than ever before. These wines will boost the flavor of your stuffing, your gravy, and even the pies that follow. But still, it's worth remembering: the most important part of the day is enjoying the company around you.

Wine Pairing 101

People often ask me how a sommelier helps pick wines at a restaurant. If I'm working with a set tasting menu, I can select (and test) specific matches for every dish. But most of the time, pairing is a moving target. First, I find out what everyone at a table is planning to eat. Perhaps everyone's sharing a charcuterie board to start, but then they've chosen different entrees. Someone's going for the roasted halibut in chicken broth with collard greens, while his tablemate ordered the rich short ribs with bacon and olive jus.

And then there's the question of general wine preferences. The pinot might make a perfect pairing, but not if these guests hate pinot and don't want to sip it as they wait for their entrees to arrive.

Once I know the food we're working with and a bit about a guest's general preferences, I consider structure. That's right: I'm not thinking about 'hints of citrus' or 'notes of leather'—it's much simpler than that. When we talk about structure in wine, we're talking about its physical aspects: its body, its tannin, its levels of acid and alcohol. And we think about structure in food the same way: Salad, for example, is a light-bodied dish. Juicy prime rib with creamy mashed potatoes is a full-bodied dish.

Light, delicate dishes don't work well with big wines—they'll be overpowered by a wine with full body, lots of tannin, and high alcohol. Flip this idea, and you'll find another truth: rich, intense dishes will eclipse a delicate wine. Acid and tannin will cut through fat—that's why we match tangy, tart Riesling with pork belly, and often turn to Cabernet Sauvignon when we've grilled a juicy steak.

You can quit there and do pretty darn well, but if you really know the flavors of the dishes you're working with and what wines you have available, then you can start doing a little custom matchmaking. Let's go back to the restaurant where I work, and that short rib and halibut scenario. Truth is, I need to compromise. I want the structure of wine to fit somewhere in the middle between each dish. The wine that I would recommend should pick up a few flavors in each guest's meal. One option could be a Chinon—Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France—that will mirror the herbal side of the collard greens and offer blackberry flavors that latch right into with the rich short rib jus. I have other options too, in case the guests aren't up for Cabernet Franc: a Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais from one of the area's ten 'crus' could also be a good fit.

A Basic Plan to Please (Almost) Everyone

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Let's bring this back to the Thanksgiving meal. Some good news: as the host, you know what everyone is eating. You don't have to come up with a surprise ribeye steak pairing on the fly. So we can start with the basics of the meal you're cooking.

Thanksgiving food clocks in somewhere between medium-and full-bodied. Turkey isn't as delicate as halibut, but it isn't as intense as a short ribs, either. There are some rich elements to the meal, and plenty of butter in those mashed potatoes.

Even though you're not picking wine for one plate of red meat and one of fish, there's still some compromise to be made, because everyone's tastes are different, and everyone's plates will be loaded with a slightly different arrangement of options. The answer: pick an assortment of wines to up the chances that everyone will be happy with something. Grandma Beth may only drink white wine, and Cousin Joe may always stick to red. Your fridge may usually have the rosé you've been into lately, but you'll have to think of everyone as you stock up for the meal.

Finally, try to pair from the heart. On a day of gratitude, consider picking wines that you've had before on some special occasion, or wines from a place you've visited. Uncorking these bottles can open the door for some great storytelling at the table. To honor my move to Oregon last year, both reds I chose were from my new home state. It was lucky that the wines I chose—Gamay and Pinot Noir—were also delicious with turkey and stuffing.

Don't Run Out of Wine

Some people may have nightmares about zombies or vampires, but sommeliers like me wake up in a cold sweat if we run out of booze in a dream. No matter what else you do, make sure your stash of Thanksgiving wine lasts as long as the conversation does.

Let's start with a rough estimate. In a restaurant, we generally pour about five ounces of wine in a glass, which means that each bottle can be poured into about five glasses. At home though, unless you're measuring (which would be weird), you will probably get four glasses per bottle. People generally drink about a glass an hour (sometimes two in the first hour), and you can divide your number of glasses by four. We'll do the math for you—just plug your numbers into this handy wine calculator!

The Serious Eats Thanksgiving Wine Calculator


Of course, the amount of wine you need really depends on who your guests are and how much they tend to guzzle on Turkey Day. Are your friends and family the type to have just one glass of wine with dinner, or will the bottle be emptied out as soon as it's cracked open? Do you have people coming who will stick to alcohol-free options? If you're serving beer or cocktails, too, then you won't need quite as much wine.

Don't forget to also have some wine around to sip while you're cooking. If you're inviting old friends over to help you prep the meal, you may need to double the number of bottles you buy.

One thing to keep in mind: Thanksgiving is just the beginning of the winter holiday season, so stocking up now just means you'll be prepared when December holidays roll around. Consider buying by the case (especially if your local shop offers a case discount) if you have a safe, cool place to store any extra wine.

On a Budget? No Problem

20141112-affordable-cava-txgiving.jpgIf you look in the right place, there are always wines that will impress your friends and family without maxing out your credit card. One way I discover good values is by trying the entry-level wines from wineries that make fancier wines I love. Want a cheat sheet? Just go with the bottles below.

Let's start by popping open some bubbles, shall we? Bohigas Brut Reserva Cava NV ($14) is made in Catalunya, Spain. The family has been making wine since the year 1290—so they've had some time to figure it out. Sparkling wine is a sommelier's secret weapon and this wine shows you why—the tart pear and Marcona almond flavors will get your appetite going (and taste marvelous with the stuffing.) The acidity and fizz help this wine act as the perfect palate cleanser.

When it comes to food and wine, Italians seemed to have figured it all out a long time ago. Many Italian wines have an incredible ability to combine body and texture with a ton of acid—meaning they can be refreshing while holding up to rich foods. Look for Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina 2013 ($12) from Campania. This white wine is quite dry but offers ripe pineapple and yellow cherry flavors that will go perfectly with dishes that have a hint of sweetness to them—think golden raisins mixed into your favorite salad.

For an affordable red, try The House of Independent Producers Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($12). It's made by the Hedges Family Estate in Washington State's Columbia Valley. Some Cabs would be too tannic for the Thanksgiving meal, but this wine offers ripe blackberry and lush black cherry flavors—it's juicy but not jammy. It's a crowd pleaser that won't overwhelm the dishes piled on your plate. Anyone else like to combine your cranberry sauce and your turkey in one bite? This is the wine to wash it down with.

Homegrown Thanksgiving: Domestic Wines to Try

It's exciting to see so many enthusiastic winemakers making great wines on our home turf, and I'd say that wines from all over the US have been increasing in quality in recent years. Here are a few that I'd recommend for your Thanksgiving table.

Start off with a glass of Bellwether Saw Mill Creek Vineyard Dry Riesling 2013 ($22)—it's a bright, minerally wine from the Finger Lakes in New York that's delicious with pre-dinner oysters but can also carry you through to a plate piled high with turkey and sides. Aromas of white peach and juicy clementine swirl up at you from the glass like a wisp of incense. If you usually drink Sauvignon Blanc, this will be your new domestic favorite.

We all know that Oregon Pinot Noir can get pricey—Mouton Noir O.P.P Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Oregon 2013 ($18) is an amazing value. The name, O.P.P., refers to Other People's Pinot—a playful way to indicate that winemaker Andre Mack bought the grapes from an assortment of local growers. It offers lip-smacking berry and orange zest flavors, almost like cranberry sauce in a glass.

Many folks insist that Zinfandel be served on Turkey Day. My pick: Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, California 2012 ($20). It's a bit fresher in style than some other Zins out there—and that's a good thing when it comes to pairing. It's a distinctive wine, packed with rich berry and fig flavors, but it's lighter in body and lower in alcohol than most. This helps to make it a dynamo on the table, working equally well with sweet potatoes as it does cranberry sauce.

Classic for a Reason

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Year after year, when you open any magazine or newspaper come November, you'll likely see the same types of wines recommended for Thanksgiving dinner. There's a reason many of these classics come up time and time again: they work. Here are some delicious time-tested wines for pairing.

Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines around: it's tart and refreshing even when it has a touch of residual sugar (which can help it handle the sweetness of Thanksgiving yams and cranberry sauce.) Peter Lauer "Barrel X" Riesling 2013 ($18) is a delicious example from the Saar in Germany. Its fresh notes of fennel and white peach—and its slight hint of fruity sweetness—work with every dish you've cooked for Thanksgiving. It's also great for cooling you off while you prep things near the stove.

Chardonnay—especially versions that spent some time in oak barrels—can really shine at the Thanksgiving table, because of all the richness of the food. Try Mount Eden Vineyards Wolf Vineyard Chardonnay, Edna Valley, California 2011 ($22). With its flavors of golden apple and hazelnut, this wine will go down as easy as your sweet potato casserole.

Your classic menu needs some classic red wines too. My Pinot pick: Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, California 2012 ($18). This expert crew makes several other more expensive bottlings, but this one's an outstanding deal. It's generous with strawberry and cherry fruit flavors that are kissed by the California sun, but it still manages to stay light and refreshing after many, many bites of stuffing and gravy.

The marketing efforts behind Beaujolais Nouveau make it a popular option, but you don't have to spend much more for much better wine from that region. Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées L'Ancien, Beaujolais 2013 ($15) is a bright, juicy Gamay from France that provides pure cranberry and violet flavors for your turkey-pairing pleasure. The hints of thyme and oregano in the wine will go great with the herbs in your stuffing.

Consider adding a food-friendly Italian red as well, such as Vietti Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont, Italy 2012 ($19). This storied estate is known for its Barolo but they also craft a beautiful and affordable example of Barbera. Barbera brings us juicy red cherry and plum flavors with warm clove and savory spice. If you're going to choose one 'house red' for the holiday season, this should be it. It's great for sipping before, during, and after dinner.

Grab Your Compass: Adventurous Wines

20141112-txgiving-adventure-wine.jpgIf you're hosting a crowd of wine lovers who have tasted it all or folks who are excited to try something new, it can be fun to gather lesser-known bottles to share.

For a white, seek out Monastero Suore Cistercensi 'Coenobium' 2012 ($25), a blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia and Verdicchio. It is made by Cistercian nuns in Lazio, Italy with the assistance of Giampiero Bea, the son of the famed Umbrian producer Paolo Bea. It has the body and texture of Chardonnay but very different aromas. Cinnamon, lemongrass tea, spiced pear—everyone will pick up something different. It's fantastic with stuffing.

You may have tried Chilean Carmenere before, but probably not a wine like this. Clos Ouvert Carmenere Caquenes Maule Valley, Chile 2011 ($19) is made by winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt with a process called carbonic maceration—a technique more commonly used in Beaujolais. The result is bright and fresh, with a perfect blend of fruity and earthy aromas. Try it with the green bean casserole—it's an amazing match.

While many folks focus on red and white, Thanksgiving is a great time for that wonderful in-between: rosé. The key is choosing one with a bit more complexity, like the Clos Cibonne Tibouren Côtes de Provence 2012 ($28). This isn't your usual light Provençal pink. The wine spends a year in large oak barrels under a veil of yeast—called fleurette—that protects the wine while it ages. Vivid rhubarb, green strawberry, and papaya flavors all come together with a refreshing salty tang—it's great with turkey and it's great with brussels sprouts served with bacon.

The Gear You Need

All that wine won't do you any good if you don't have a way to serve it. Make sure you have enough glassware for every guest to have a wine glass—and a few extras in case of breakage. You'll also need a corkscrew or two—this double-hinged version is cheap and easy to use.

If you're pouring older bottles you've collected, or if you're serving young, full-bodied wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, you may want to have a decanter or two ready as well. For young wines, the goal is to give it some air: the exchange with oxygen while it's in the decanter helps the wine wipe the sleep from its eyes after being bottled up. In the case of an older wine, decanting will help remove any yucky sediment that may be in the bottle. Traditionally, you pour the wine from the bottle into the decanter with a candle over the shoulder of the bottle to be able to see when the sediment is getting close to being poured out. You can also do this with a flash light—or even the light on your iPhone.

You don't need an expensive crystal decanter in either case. Any clean glass vase or water pitcher will also work—whatever allows the wine to have some surface area exposed. I've also had success finding cheap decanters (under 15 bucks!) at discount stores such as Home Goods.

Attending as a Guest? Gift Bottles to Bring

Nothing is more welcome to the Thanksgiving chef than a guest who arrives with a bottle of sparkling, chilled and ready to pop open. Champagnes and other sparkling wines are perfect for getting the party started, and they're excellent companions to whatever pre-dinner nibbles your host has set out. They may feel a little pricey, but probably don't compare to the expense your host has incurred gathering the bird and fixings.20141112-sparkling-gift-thanksgiving.jpg

If you want to go all out, consider pink. Rosè Champagne often goes for $75 or much more, but Chartogne-Taillet Rosè Brut NV ($55), from a small grower-producer in the village of Merfy, easily tastes like a bottle that costs much more. It's crisp and dry, popping with hints of strawberry, tangy rhubarb, and aromatic roses.

If you want to stick with domestic wines (and save a little cash), I recommend Roederer Estate Brut NV ($19). This wine is made by the a famous Champagne house's California headquarters in the Anderson Valley. Its flavors of green apple and pear layered on tender brioche will get your mouth watering. And don't relegate the bubbles to the pre-dinner hour! As we've found time and time again, sparkling wine is excellent the whole meal through.

Despite plates and plates of green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, people usually save room for Thanksgiving desserts... but forget to factor that into the plan for booze. So you can save the day by bringing a dessert wine gift. Consider Madeira, which offers nutty brown sugar flavors that are incredible with whatever type of pie you've chosen. Henriques & Henriques Rainwater ($15) is a medium-dry wine that'll remind you of vanilla beans and orange peel. It's great with a cheese plate. Rare Wine Co. makes a variety of different Madeiras with different sweetness levels, labeled by the grape used ($45 each). The Savannah Verdelho is a drier style with notes of honey and almonds. If you're looking for a match for pecan pie, hit your sweet tooth with Rare Wine's New York Malmsey—it's a bit like crème brûlée in liquid form. Bonus: Madeira doesn't go bad after opening, so your host can keep enjoying it until well after Christmas.

Note: Bellwether tasting sample provided for review consideration.