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Wine vs. Beer: A Thanksgiving Battle

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[Beer photo: Sarah Postma, Wine photo: Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The moment I pressed 'send', I began to panic. What was I thinking, inviting 10 restaurant professionals—a crew of sommeliers and cicerones, wine and beer experts—to my house for Thanksgiving dinner? How big a turkey should I buy? How much stuffing should I make? And most importantly, do I have enough non-embarrassing glassware? I tried to breathe deeply; after all, this was all about outsourcing the real Thanksgiving challenge, getting these experts to scout out what we should drink on Turkey Day.

What happens when you tell a crew of professional choosers-of-drinks to select wine and beer to serve with stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes, and yams? Sparkling wine, sherry, a wide range of reds...and a little more sparkling wine to top it off. And beer from around the world, starting with bright white ale and ending with deep coffee-oatmeal stout (with something smoky in between.) Which would be the best match, and who would win bragging rights?

The plates were loaded, the decks were stacked. We started with bubbles. There may have been some sabering out an open window (don't try this at home, kids) and the Thanksgiving beer vs. wine challenge began with Cremant D'Alsace from Domaine Barmès Buecher, which sells for around $17. If we'd served oysters to kick off the meal, it would have worked fine with the wine, but this bright, simple sparkling only worked to clear the palate between bites; it was pretty much wiped out by the food, and ended up tasting slightly bitter.

The takeaway: light, bright bubbles are fine for a pre-dinner aperitif, but if you're going to serve sparkling with the Thanksgiving meal, go bigger. Rachael Ryan of Quince recommended vintage Champagne: "something oxidative and nutty—something a little richer."

Tips for Choosing White Wine for Thanksgiving

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From lower left: sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry relish, brussels sprouts, turkey.

Spoiler Alert!

  • Best Beer: Brasserie Dupont Bière de Beloeil
  • Best wine: J. Chamonard Morgon '10
  • Pricey pick: vintage Champagne

Vinny Eng of Bar Tartine came bearing unicorns: that is, the unicorn label on Pfeffingen 2011 Dry Scheurebe, a crazy-aromatic tropical-scented wine from the Pfalz in Germany that sells for under $20. "What I love about this wine is how piercing the minerality is," said Vinny. "Floral wines can get weighty, but there's an angularity to this that makes it versatile with food, plus it has just a little residual sugar, which means it will be good for dishes that have more sweetness, like the sweet potatoes." Though some found the pineapple scent of this wine a little distracting, the flavors were a slam-dunk with sweet potatoes and it really popped with orange and cranberry relish. "The citrus and scheurebe combo is wild," noted one guest, "It kind of screams holiday, in a psychedelic way." Some wondered if a Scheurebe with a touch more sugar would work even better.

In addition to seeking out whites with a hint of sweetness, the sommeliers at the table also agreed that a white wine made with a bit of extended skin contact could work well. I offered up a 2011 Donkey and Goat Grenache Blanc, and Rachel Ryan said, "The extended skin contact and the fact that it's unfiltered make this wine a bit more textural, which is nice with food." Stevie Stacionis of Corkbuzz noted, "The texture and nose of this wine is so soft and welcoming, and then the acid creeps up to cleanse your palate." It imparted and almost smoky quality to the turkey, and the acid cut right through the rich mashed potatoes. (Is there such a thing as too much butter and sour cream in mashed potatoes?)

Caramelized flavors abound on the Thanksgiving table—golden turkey skin, the crisp edges of stuffing, toasted pecans on sweet potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted garlic, roasted chesnuts, nutty cheeses—and sherry can step up to those flavors, especially oxidative styles like Amontillado. "Amontillado can be an aperitif, but I think it's really underrated with food," said Rachael Ryan, who brought along a bottle of Bodegas Hidalgo Amontillado Napoleon. "It's still briny, it still has acidity and cuts through the richness of the food," Rachael pointed out. It was luscious with the dark meat turkey, and amazing with the stuffing. "It's awesome," agreed Stevie Stacionis, "but it's just too damn much." At 17.5% alcohol, this rich, complex wine might doom your Thanksgiving guests to an early nap.

Farmhouse Ales Make a Fantastic Pairing

We refilled our plates and let beer take center stage. There were a few fumbles to start: Hitachino White had a nice gingery spice to it, but got beat up by most of the food; it felt too light and didn't quite latch into the flavors. The much richer North Coast PranQster Belgian Style Golden Ale worked a bit better with stuffing, but amplified the vegetal character of the brussels sprouts and overpowered the other dishes.

But just as the case for beer looked weak, we moved onto farmhouse ales. The amber from France's Brasserie Thiriez was herbal and earthy, with a toasty caramel-apple scent and a smoky and wheaty flavor. It worked with turkey and brussels sprouts, but seemed like it could use a little more carbonation. By comparison, La Bière de Beloeil from Brasserie Dupont of Belgium was a home run. It worked with every dish, bringing caramelized flavors into focus, adding interest with its rustic, spicy flavor and lively carbonation. "What's awesome about this," noted cicerone Mike Reis of The Monk's Kettle and Abbot's Cellar, "is you're kind of trading back and forth with each sip, the beer being in focus, the food being in focus—there's a good give-and-take here." It was a killer pairing, and trumped any of the wines we'd tried thus far.

On Red Wine, Corked Bottles, and Blowing the Budget

Let's talk wine logistics for a minute. You're going to need a lot of bottles for Thanksgiving—caterers recommend figuring one bottle per person if your meal is going to last awhile; it's better to have extra than to run out. If you're stocking up on wine, then there's another thing to keep in mind: TCA. You might get lucky, but experts estimate that cork taint could damage as many as 5 to 8% of wine bottles closed with natural corks. So if you've gathered 12 bottles for 12 people, one of them very well might be off. If you pour a glass and smell moldy cardboard and damp basement, figure your wine has been damaged, and don't serve it. Keep a stash of backup bottles at the ready!

After we recovered from our disappointment in a corked bottle—well, most of us recovered; I think poor Vinny's heart was broken when his bottle, a supple, earthy St. Magdalener made with co-fermented Schiava and Lagrein from Alto Adige, couldn't be tasted—we popped open some Beaujolais—Cru Beaujolais, that is. These villages, located at the northern end of the Beaujolais region in France, produce top-notch gamay that's delicious year round, but especially magical at the Thanksgiving table. But which cru should you choose?

We pitted a Morgon, brought by Eric Railsback of RN74, against a Fleurie, picked by John Trinidad of the SF Wine Blog. "These two offer a really good contrast of what gamay can do," said John as he poured. The Julien Sunier 2011 Fleurie was pretty, bright, and fresh, whirling with floral notes and a graphite quality that brought it back to earth. The J. Chamonard 2010 Morgon was deeper and richer, picking up the cranberry notes and encouraging the mushroom flavors in the stuffing to come out. "There's concentration and succulence here," gushed Stevie Stacionis. "I just want to keep drinking both of these, but the Morgon especially feels indulgent and holds up to the food." John Trinidad agreed that both of the Beaujolais options "paired better than anything we've had so far—and the good thing about Thanksgiving is that you have enough people, you can do both." Both bottles sell for under $26 and sometimes under $22.

Is it worth spending more on Thanksgiving wine? When Beaujolais is that good, we have trouble saying yes. Is Thanksgiving the time to break out the special bottles you've been saving? That depends on who you're with. Eric Railsback opened up a Burgundy he'd stashed away, a 1999 Chambolle-Musigny from Domaine Louis Remy. It was beautiful. Dense, earthy, mushroomy, awesome with turkey, amazing with stuffing, but the glass was gone too soon, and the busy buzz of the holiday table might not have been the perfect environment to enjoy it. "You want to sit back and think about this wine, not chug it," said one taster. With the Beaujolais, said Eric, it can be "hammer time."

The one reason we might recommend shelling out for Thanksgiving: Champagne. And not just before dinner. Josiah Baldivino of Michael Mina stole the show with Champagne Hebrart Extra Brut 2006 Rive Gauche-Rive Droite, a golden, rich sparkling wine that blew us all away mid-meal. "Champagne is great with everything," said Josiah, "but it's really great with this," he said as he scooped up mashed potatoes with gravy, turkey, and stuffing. As we'd anticipated when tasting the disappointing Cremant, a richer style of sparkling was much better with the food, refreshing between bites but also adding complexity to each of the dishes. It's an eye-opening, game-changing—but expensive—option.

Beer with Dessert

There's always room for pie, and we tested a few beers along with dessert—the malty character of beer, plus a little residual sugar, can be just right with baked goods, and the different levels of roasting on the malt can offer lots of pairing options.

Mike Reis shared a smoked Weizen beer from Aecht Schlenkerla, which added a bacony note to pecan pie and brought out the tartness in apple pie. We also sipped Founders Breakfast Stout, which worked like a shot of bitter espresso to balance the sweetness in the pecan pie and bring out the molasses in the pumpkin pie. "It's a little ashy, though," noted one taster, and the group in general wished for just a touch more sweetness.

And the Medals Go To...

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The ultimate winners? Railsback carried home the prize for the Morgon, which was the best wine pairing for the price. Mike Reis' Bière de Beloeil from Brasserie Dupont convinced us that beer has a place at Thanksgiving, and Josiah gets an honorable mention for proving that Champagne trumps all.

Perhaps it wasn't a totally fair fight, pitting fancy cellared wines against beer that costs quite a bit less. But ultimately, a $25 bottle of wine pleased our whole group of experts. And the good news is, at Thanksgiving, you don't have to choose between beer and wine. Put a few farmhouse ales on your table, offer some Morgon and other Cru Beaujolais, too, and make sure everyone gets a glass of Champagne. They'll all go home happy.

Stocking up for Thanksgiving? Check out our page full of wine, beer, and cocktail picks for the holiday!

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is the editor of Serious Eats: Drinks. She lives in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

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