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How to Choose Wine for Thanksgiving

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©iStockphoto.com/Moncherie

There's a lot of conflicting advice out there when it comes to picking wine to serve on Thanksgiving.

Every year, there's a call for all-American Zinfandel with its big black currant and berry flavors. And then the chorus of voices urging you to back away from the Zin, saying its juiciness will overpower the meal, and its potent alcohol level will put you to sleep before the tryptophan kicks in. You'll see loads of recommendations for food-friendly Pinot Noir, with its silky texture and fresh acidity. And others will urge you toward Gamay, Barbera, Riesling, you name it. For every article that declares "Cabernet is the ultimate All-American Thanksgiving wine!" there are three that ask, "Are you crazy? Cabernet?"

So let's just all relax a little. This isn't a test you have to pass. There is no single perfect Thanksgiving wine.

Just think of all the items on the Thanksgiving table: a burnished roast turkey, sure, but also stuffing (with oysters? with sausage? with chestnuts? with jalapeno cornbread?), creamed onions, brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans...It's dizzying. No mythical bottle is going to be the ultimate match for all of these Thanksgiving treats. So what wines should you choose? Here are a few guidelines for making your way through the Thanksgiving Wine Conundrum.

Drink What You Like

What wines make you happy? Sleek, structured reds on the light side? Or earthier options? Sweeter styles? Or fresh, tart whites? Feel free to experiment (especially with the wines we recommend over the coming weeks), but don't feel tethered to a recommendation for a style of wine that you just don't like just because you read about it in your cooking magazines and local newspaper. If you hate the flavor of oak, don't feel like you need a heavily barrel-aged Chardonnay on your Thanksgiving table. Tune out the hype and listen to your own preferences.

Buy a Case

Twelve bottles of wine may seem like a lot, but holiday entertaining season is upon us. Chances are, after Thanksgiving, you're likely to need a bottle of wine to bring to a dinner party, another for a cocktail party, maybe a few for gifts for coworkers. Maybe you're hosting a December holiday gathering, too. Stock up now, and you won't need to run to the store every time an occasion comes up. Ask your local wine store if they'll give a discount on a mixed case of wine—many do. But don't feel like you need to buy 12 different wines: getting pairs (or three bottles of each) will allow people to enjoy the same wine throughout a meal, and prevent topping-up mishaps.

Start With the Good Stuff

As the Thanksgiving meal drags on, your tastebuds will be less attuned to the wine you're drinking. So consider starting the night with your featured wines, and moving toward less expensive bottles later on. Front-load the wines you think will be best, and serve them when people will most appreciate them. This could mean you serve a single nice bottle of Champagne with hors d'oeuvres, followed by a few bottles of solid, affordable red.

Don't Blow the Bank

The truth is, the Thanksgiving meal may not be the perfect one to pair with your prize bottles. It could be that a $17 wine is going to work better than a $100 one when you get Grandma's sweet potatoes and Aunt Rita's green bean casserole in the mix. A nimble, fresh-tasting wine might complement turkey and mashed potatoes better than a pricey, showstopping monster. You might be better off saving the fancy bottle for a duck or lamb dinner later on this month.

But what will we be drinking at Thanksgiving? Some seriously good, fun stuff. Don't worry, we'll tell you which bottles (and why) over the coming weeks.

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