If you're hosting a big crowd for Thanksgiving, you don't want to break the bank with your wine choices. At the same time, gross wine does no favors to all the food you slaved over. We sought out the best wines for pairing with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and more, all $18 and under (and some way under.)
Here are our top picks and a few general tips for seeking out tasty Thanksgiving wine on a budget.
White Wine Bargains
When looking for white wines that will be delicious with the Thanksgiving meal, we generally lean toward lightly oaked or unoaked examples that won't make it taste like we're swallowing a mouthful of firewood with our turkey. Medium-bodied wines are going to stand up to the richness of the meal nicely, and it doesn't hurt to have a slight hint of aromatic sweetness to stand up to dishes like stuffing and sweet potatoes.
For around $11, we were pretty pleased with the Blue Plate 2010 Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California, which offers richness and body without the interference of oak (which can be a barrier when you're drinking wine with food.) This wine has bright tart highlights from the addition of 12% Sauvignon Blanc, but it's mellow, with a little asian pear, apricot, and beeswax-and-honey flavor that's common in Chenin Blanc (there's also a drop of Chardonnay in there, and only the Chardonnay is aged in oak, the rest is all clean stainless steel.)
Even better is Montinore Estate's Borealis, a white blend featuring Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer. With a remarkable clarity and purity of flavor, this wine seems crystalline and infused with aromatic jasmine and grapefruit, with palate-cleansing tartness to balance a whisper of residual sugar. A refreshing wine that's perfect for the herbal flavors of stuffing, turkey, and gravy, and a killer deal at $15 or less. I would buy a case of this in a heartbeat if I had any more storage space.
When you think of Beaujolais, you think of red wine, right? But Chatelard Beaujolais Blanc is an unoaked Chardonnay—yep, a white wine—that's just right for Thanksgiving. It's lightly tangy, but supple and creamy enough to support mashed potatoes. And no vanilla-perfume oak flavor to stand in the way of the food-wine harmony. For $15, we're in; our tasters assumed this wine was pricier when tasting it blind.
Grüner Veltliner is a remarkably food-friendly grape variety; we tend to drink examples from Austria. But it's popping up in the States too, and if you're drinking domestically this holiday, we encourage you to seek it out. We recently enjoyed the Chehalem 2010 Ribbon Ridge Grüner Veltliner from Oregon; it offers a rich medium bodied feel without oakiness to interfere with your food. This wine, which runs about $18, has hints of peaches (with the pit), honeydew, and sweet celery, and a pleasant corn-like graininess that makes it a good match for cornbread stuffing.
Red Wines That Won't Break the Bank
Red wine for Thanksgiving should complement, not overpower your food. Turkey is not the thing to pair with a super heavy, oaky, full-bodied red. Save it for short ribs! Instead, we look for easy-drinking red wine with nice tart acidity to refresh the palate as you eat.
We'd happily pour Pittnauer Bürgenlander Rot at a big Thanksgiving gathering. Don't be afraid of the name: 'rot' in German just means red (it's pronounced 'rote'.) This biodynamically farmed blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St Laurent (a relative of Pinot Noir) from Austria is so easy to drink you'll find your $13 liter is gone quicker than you expected. It tastes like tart pomegranate and Bing cherries, spiced with clove. There's lots of nice acidity and a bit of black earth, but this is a friendly, chuggable wine that won't make you think too hard.
We often think of Spanish wines as robust, oak-aged beasts, but Jeromin Zestos (2010) is an unoaked blend of Tempranillo and Grenache that's aged in stainless steel and cement tank, leaving it with a fruity freshness that makes it work well for Thanksgiving. The dark fruit flavors (blueberries, dried currant) come together with a bit of black pepper and great acid to make a remarkably balanced wine for 8 or 9 bucks.
Best Bang for the Buck: Gamay
"Gamay makes up some of our favorite Thanksgiving wines—at any price."
Fruity, early-release Beaujolais Nouveau from huge producers often tastes mostly like the banana-like esters produced by the yeast that's used to ferment it. It can be pretty unappealing. But that doesn't mean you should stay away from the Gamay grape, or from real Beaujolais—please don't. Gamay makes up some of our favorite Thanksgiving wines—at any price.
Pierre Chermette's Beaujolais 2010 runs around $16 or less and is amazingly well fitted for the Thanksgiving meal, with its lovely pomegranate flavors, hints of black pepper and clove, plus its sour-cherry acidity that cleanses the palate. It's a fresh-tasting, deliciously juicy-tart wine that should be served with a little chill (if you have room in the fridge.)
We were thoroughly seduced by Nicole Chanrion's Cote-de-Brouilly Domaine de la Voute des Crozes, imported by Kermit Lynch. This elegant, luxurious option (around $18) from the slopes of Cote de Brouilly in Beaujolais offers deep berried fruit (like baked blueberries and blackberries) and hints of baking spices and cocoa, plugging in nicely to the sage and mushrooms in our Thanksgiving stuffing.
In Burgundy, blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay are called Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. These can offer tremendous value, and it's a great grape combination for Thanksgiving. Taupenot-Merme's $17 version is peppery and leathery, tasting like iron-rich clay and really tart cranberries and cherries. The tart acidity keeps the meal lively.
What's your budget for Thanksgiving wine? Got any great under-$18 bottles to recommend?
Disclosure: With the exception of the Zestos and Pittnauer Bürgenlander, all wines were received as samples for review consideration.