Ask a Sommelier: Tips for Thanksgiving Wine on a Budget

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Thanksgiving wine conundrum seems to cause a bit of stress for hosts. When the price of turkey and all the other stuff starts to stack up, how do you save a few in the wine department and still pour something tasty? We asked some sommelier friends for their advice: What affordable wines work well for Thanksgiving? How do you please everyone in a big group? Should you buy a variety of wines, or stick with just one or two choices? Here are their tips.

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Erica O'Neal of Frasca in Boulder, Colorado.

"What Thanksgiving is all about is variety, with a plethora of smells, textures, and green beans, so I also like to provide variety in wine that is being offered at the table. The second most important aspect is a wine that is easy to drink because after all those days of labor, everyone wants to relax and not worry about any more fuss. My recommendation for such a diverse setting is to go with a diverse group of flexible food wines. I love a great Vouvray such as one from Chateau du Monfort to pair along with any turkey and Rieslings work wonderfully as well. The slight sweetness in these wines will stand up to your mom trying a new spice rub on the bird. If someone prefers red, a lighter body varietal such as a Pinot Noir or Gamay would be great—a great cru Beaujolais from Moulin-a-Vent by Domaine Diochon will be impressive and not break the budget. If your family always has that holiday ham on the table, try a fun light Schiava from Italy—I like the St. Magdalener 'Huck am Bach' from Cantina Bolzano. It is likely that everyone will take a nap after all that food so I also tend to stay away from higher alcohol wines."—Erica O'Neal (Frasca Food and Wine)

"When you have a big group, it usually isn't necessary to crazy with wine. Generally, if you are willing to spend between $15-20 [per bottle] you are going to get excellent value. Since there are so many flavors in a Thanksgiving meal, light bodied reds without a lot of tannin would be a safe bet. Look for grapes and regions that are still emerging into the mainstream. Frappato from Sicily or Blaufrankisch from Austria would be great wines to introduce to your friends without breaking the bank."—Stacey Gibson (Olympic Provisions)

"I think Riesling from Germany and fuller reds from the South of France offer a tremendous value. At Thanksgiving, I think wine is more about pairing to the people than the food. I know my younger relatives love fuller red wines, so I buy wines from Provence or Languedoc, which primarily from the mourvedre grape in the South of France. My older relatives are into Champagne and Riesling, so I typically buy Cremant, sparkling wine made outside Champagne, that offers a nice value, and a Kabinett Riesling from Germany that isn't too expensive."—Kyle Ridington (Piora)

"Thanksgiving is always really tricky in regards to pairing wine with food. Not because turkey is a difficult protein to match wine to, but because of the diversity of side dishes that are present. And on top of that every family has their own traditions as far was what ends up on the dinner table. With my family's selection I've had success with rosé (particularly from Bandol), Grüner Veltliner, dry Riesling and lighter reds like Langhe Nebbiolo or Syrah from St. Joseph or Crozes Hermitage."—Davis Smith (Acquerello)

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Morgan Harris of Corkbuzz in New York City.

"For Thanksgiving, because you've got a bunch of different flavors on the table, and usually a fairly high concentration of relatively rich dishes, you're going to want wines that liven up your palate and keep you in the game. Definitely avoid extremes: anything too rich or too wimpy. Pinot Grigio will be too watery and low-acid, whereas that monster Aussie Shiraz or California Cabernet is going to blow every dish off the table.

There's some truth to the Zinfandel and Beaujolais suggestions. For Zin, keep to a classic producer like Storybook, or a new-school, low-alcohol producer like Antic Wine Company. For Beaujolais, skip the nouveau and grab a great producer from a good vineyard, like Jean Foillard's Côte du Py or Chamonard's Clos de Lys. I think Rioja or a Southern Rhône Grenache from a classically-styled producer would be great as well. For whites, I've always thought the wines of Alsace were great partners to Thanksgiving, especially Riesling, because of its tartness. Trimbach's is one of my favorites.

As to price, I think getting great wine is kind of like buying a free-range turkey, organic vegetables, or artisanal cheese. If you want a hand-made product, it's going to come at a little bit of a premium, not much of one, but a little. Most of the wines I talked about are in the $20-$40 dollar range at retail. Would you even think to spend that much in a restaurant? This being said, Jadot's regular bottling of Beaujolais has long been a favorite of mine, and Muscadet always offers ridiculous value. Both belong at the Thanksgiving table."—Morgan Harris (Corkbuzz)

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Maxine Borcherding of the Oregon Culinary Institute

"I do recommend a variety, and always have several choices of wine on my table. One of the rules of food and wine pairing is to pair to the dominant flavor, whether it is in the center of the plate, the seasoning, the cooking method, or the sauce. What IS the dominant flavor when the table has an astounding variety of flavors and aromas? Add to that individual preferences when a large group is at the table: some only drink white wines; some drink reds with everything; others insist on dry, and yet others on sweet. Here are my choices for a selection of delicious wines that won't break the bank: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay—punches well above its weight and will please Chardonnay lovers for around $12. Clean Slate Riesling from the Mosel is fruity and off dry with enough acidity to balance any sweetness. Lots of citrus, honey, apricot and white flowers and a great bargain at under $10 per bottle. Beaujolais Villages is always a good choice. It is a light and fruity red made from Gamay, one of the world's most versatile and food friendly red grapes. One more? Finding a great pinot at a great price can be a challenge, but the answer is Patricia Green Cellars Dollar Bills Only Pinot Noir. Only sold locally, this delicious Oregon Pinot Noir is a steal at under $14 a bottle."—Maxine Borcherding (Oregon Culinary Institute)

"Thankfully the perfect Thanksgiving wines are wines of value. Beaujolais and Riesling are still misunderstood and sold way below what they are worth, which makes it easy to show up with a great Thanksgiving wine for under $25. For Riesling, I usually go to Austria for good value, these are dry, bright wines that are very food friendly. In the red camp Sunier Regnie has been my go-to this year. Being bright, juicy and refreshing, make it a crowd pleaser, and only $25 retail. One rule I always try and pass on is that Thanksgiving is a time of sharing. So not only do I like to enjoy my meal family style, but I also like to enjoy wines in the same fashion. Crack a bunch of bottles and pass them around the table. The more the merrier!!"—Eric Railsback (Les Marchands)

"Classic Thanksgiving wine is Beaujolais Nouveau. Made entirely from Gamay, it's light and versatile, it's cheap, it's low in alcohol so you can stay awake long enough to tell someone else to do the dishes. It's also delicious and contemplative wine when it's made well. Access to truly excellent Beaujolais Nouveau can be tricky, however. Not much of the good stuff makes it across the pond. I like Gamay at Thanksgiving, though, so I usually look to the Loire Valley for alternative, budget-friendly sources. Buying a variety isn't something I usually recommend, since it's often hard to keep track of who's drinking what in a big group, so you run the risk of mixing wines together accidentally. My suggestion is to find a wine you like and ask your local shop if they can order you a case. Many shops offer discounts on case purchases, so it's a great way to save a buck."—Lauren Friel (Oleana)

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Daniel Beedle of Betony in New York City.

"There is such a diversity of food in a Thanksgiving spread that picking a perfect wine is a very hard task. The real game plan is to find a wine that doesn't go against anything. Also, you have to think about the family factor; you might be a quite the wine connoisseur but your uncle Bill likes Franzia and Sprite over ice. Cerasuolo from Sicily is a great red option in that it is easy drinking with solid acidity and is all about being fresh and lively. For a white option go for a crowd-pleaser Burgundy. While it seems like Burgundy and value are contradicting words, you would be surprised to find some amazing wines from the south of Burgundy in Macon or some Bourgogne Blanc wines from very notable producers. Olivier Merlin, Bret Bros, and Domaine Laflaive are all doing some wonderful bottlings at great prices. But hey, this is an American holiday, what if you want to stay American and local? Here in New York you can find world class wines from the Finger Lakes. Producers like Bloomer Creek, Shaw Vineyards, and Herman J. Weimer make some wonderful dry and sweet rieslings that are perfect for capturing the autumnal nature of the season. For some local red options Ravines Winery from Keuka Lake makes some very elegant Pinot Noir and if you are up for something different try a Lemberger from Damiani Wines."—Daniel Beedle (Betony)

"For a great American holiday like Thanksgiving I suggest picking wines from around the USA. For the best values look to the Central Coast of California or the Columbia Valley in Washington."—Emily Wines MS (Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants)

"I like Syrah at thanksgiving. Particularly cool climate ones, areas like California's North Coast or Frances Northern Rhône Valley. The wines also a great value."—Patrick Cappiello (Pearl & Ash)

"Thanksgiving food is all over the place: sweet, salty, dry, moist, hot, cold, so I've always loved bringing really versatile whites and reds to the party: forget about trying to pair specific dishes, this is not the occasion for it! For whites, nothing too oaky (avoid rich Chardonnay) or too dry/light (as in, no Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio), for reds, nothing too tannic (Bordeaux & Cabernet blends will overpower). In the end, I prefer to bring a variety of choices so people can choose what they prefer to drink, and large-formats are great for big groups: affordable magnums of dry Riesling from Austria and the Finger Lakes and young Nebbiolo from Piedmont will go a long way, and people will know you're bringing the party with your big bottles!"—Thomas Pastuszak (The NoMad)

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Cara Patricia of Hakkasan in San Francisco

"Fruit-driven medium bodied reds are always a good choice, like Sonoma Coast pinot noirs or GSM blends. I love Sean Thackery's Pleiades wines with Thanksgiving. They remind me of Cru Beaujolais in their versatility, and are a bit of a talking piece at the table (no vintage, mix of odd grapes, made in Marin County). Other wines like Albarino, Mencia, Cote du Rhone, Provence rose, and Languedoc white blends are all very versatile and can usually be found at good prices anywhere. Stick to a good producer's AOC or VDP selections and you will get a lot of bang for your buck."—Cara Patricia (Hakkasan San Francisco)

"For a versatile and affordable red wine that easily makes its way around a Thanksgiving table, I always enjoy Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. In this part of the world, Cabernet Franc is finessed and aromatic with a body that more closely resembles Pinot Noir."—Matthew Carroll (BRABO)

"For Thanksgiving, to start, offer a white and a red so everyone can have their choice. A Thanksgiving dinner crowd can be diverse, so consider varying regions and style. For white, perhaps a medium bodied California Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. For red, if you're on a budget, you can find some great Côtes du Rhône, but make sure you know what you're buying, because there are many choices and it not all great (Jean-Louis Chave Selections 'Mon Coeur' or 'Offérus' makes a terrific wine). Corsica has a great Patrimonio made by Yves Leccia. And because it's a larger group, think large format! Wine is always better in a bigger bottle...really!"—Edouard Bourgeois (Café Boulud)

"Wines that pair with a wide variety of foods, like a Spanish Cava or wines from Beaujolais and Washington State are ideal. I recommend staying focused and serving three wines: an all-around white, an all-around red and then a bigger, monster red. Village specific Beaujolais such as Cru or Côtes du Rhône from the Rhône Valley are also excellent choices."—Vajra Stratigos (Fifth Group Restaurants)

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Andres Loaiza of Aria in Atlanta [Photo: George Sanchez]

"It is hard to please everybody, but a style of wine that is commonly overlooked but loved by all is sparkling wine. These wines are very versatile and can stand up to the rich dishes of the day. Domestic Sparkling or Cremant are a fraction of the price of Champagne and would be a great addition to the dinner table. I also like Alsatian Gewürztraminer and new world Pinot Noirs."—Andres Loaiza (Aria)

"Always the traditional gamay—the fruitiest crus like St Amour, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie would be perfect. Zinfandel, on the non 15% side, but like Mike Dashe is making...or the Primitivo by Natalino del Prete in Puglia...As always, I think Chenin goes with everything, especially from Vouvray and Montlouis, where you find some slightly off dry versions. Assyrtiko from Santorini, especially Hatzidakis."—Pascaline Lepeltier (Rouge Tomate)

"I like the communal aspect of Thanksgiving and there is no reason you can't do the same with the wine. Buy a mixed case of different wines. This way you can have a variety of styles, grapes, and regions represented. Pop the tops, put them on the table and let everyone go at it. It also creates a fun dialogue and a chance to try something new. I think lighter reds with minimal oak influence are best. Try Gamay, Barbera, Frapatto, Nero d'Avola, Grenache, just to name a few. Chill them down slightly and it makes them much more approachable, refreshing, and food friendly."—Sabato Sagaria, MS (The Little Nell)

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Joshua Orr of Marina Kitchen in San Diego

"The fun part about Thanksgiving is that the mainstream wines that everyone always drinks (insert your favorite Cabernet or Chardonnay) aren't the best options. The diverse selection of food that constitutes Thanksgiving begs for something a little different. There are a few wines that are my go-tos for Thanksgiving and they all present good value as far as price goes. The first is dry rose—it's incredibly underrated and very versatile at the dinner table. If you can get over your stigma of "pink wines" you will be greatly rewarded because there is a lot of great and inexpensive rose out there. The second is Beaujolais Cru wines. These wines are very similar to Pinot Noir but at about half the price, and make a great partner to a turkey, cranberry, and stuffing sandwich. The third wine is Sangiovese from Italy. Sangiovese is the grape of Chianti. It has a great mouth watering character that makes for a great match to all the different textures and flavors that come with Thanksgiving dinner. Last but not least is Pinot Noir with its bright berry fruit and spice character. Pinot has silky texture and soft tannins that make it very versatile at the table. It is perhaps the only one of the four that doesn't present great value as inexpensive Pinot Noir is a bit like Russian Roulette."—Joshua Orr (Marina Kitchen)

"Personally, I would choose wines from Portugal. The whites are generally refreshing and bright with lovely acidity to tackle different type of food. And I really think based on what we prepare for Thanksgiving meal, white wines generally work better than red. Nevertheless, Portugal reds are definitely crowd pleasing, because it has much more fruit driven flavor profile than other classic European wines. At the same time, the acidity is still well maintained. So for the family members whom only tap into wine consumption during the holidays, Portuguese wines offers the best possible options from all perspective."—Arthur Hon (Sepia)

"For white, I like to do California Chardonnay, in a medium richness level. A great bargain wine at around $11, and readily available at many retail stores, is Greystone Cellars Chardonnay. It has that hint of richness that many Chardonnay drinkers enjoy, but it's got enough mouth-watering acidity to stand up to Thanksgiving, and to please an old-world wine drinker. I don't think it's ever possible to truly please everyone, but I also believe that if you thoughtfully select wines to pair with the meal you are preparing, and your guests are enjoying themselves, that wine is going to taste a LOT better to them, no matter what they normally like. It's actually been proven with academic studies that alcohol tastes better when you are somewhere pleasant, and when you are having fun."—Lara Creasy (King + Duke)

"A variety is a good idea. Buy a little bit of inexpensive sparkling (which, I'll grant, is becoming harder and harder to find; try, if you can, to find something Chardonnay or Pinot-based), a Chardonnay that isn't too lean but still has structure (look for Rickshaw Chardonnay, made by the kind dudes at Banshee Wines in CA), and then I say throw in a hefty share of Beaujolais Nouveau. Avoid the grocery store, though. Look instead for Domaine Pral's Nouveau. It's the best I've had."—Steven Grubbs (Empire State South)

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More Thanksgiving Wine

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Wine Tips for Thanksgiving

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