In a restaurant, you can ask a sommelier for wine advice, but when you cook a Thanksgiving feast at home, you probably don't have a somm on hand. So we dialed up a few of our wine expert friends to find out their Turkey Day wine advice—what wines to buy, what wines to avoid, and what bottles they're looking forward to opening to sip with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and a table full of relatives.
When asked for some basic wine guidelines for Thanksgiving, Juliette Pope, beverage director of Gramercy Tavern, suggests lightening up a bit. "We all overstuff ourselves with the bounty of Thanksgiving, so wines that are not too rich or full-bodied are best. Whatever the color of the wine, you're looking for low and/or soft tannins, no oak, forward juicy fruit, and bright acidity."
Why avoid intense tannins and lots of oak? "Mouth-drying tannins and flavor-masking oak are going to wear out your palate through a long meal of highly varied sweet and savory dishes." Instead, Pope suggests that you look for fruitiness to complement all elements of the meal, and acidity to refresh your palate and get you ready for another bite...and another...
Dustin Wilson of Eleven Madison Park says he tends to gravitate toward a few specific grapes for Thanksgiving. "First is Riesling, preferably German with a kiss of sweetness or perhaps a more textured but dry style from Austria." For reds, Wilson loves Pinot Noir, but warns against choosing anything too ripe or oaky. "The mushroomy side of Pinot Noir makes me think of fall," he says. "And last but certainly not least, Syrah. Especially Syrah from the Northern Rhone in France, with its peppery, meaty, smoky notes—these wines are so savory, they beg for food."
If you're focused on serving domestic wines for the holiday, Josh Nadel of The Dutch suggests a handful of Californian options. For whites, he recommends Qupe Roussanne 'Bien Nacido Hillside Estate' or Robert Sinskey 'Abraxas' White (a field blend of Alsatian grapes.) For reds, he suggests Tensley Syrah 'Colson Canyon' from Santa Barbara, Copain Pinot Noir 'Kiser en Haut' from Mendocino County, and Ridge Zinfandel 'Geyserville'.
But Nadel himself is more likely to turn to Alsatian whites on Thanksgiving (and on any other day), saying that it's "tough for a domestic wine to mimic the lushness, texture, ripeness and acidity found in these wines—and they are so dynamite with white meats, sausage that may find its way into stuffing, and gravy flavors."
Wines to Avoid
What wines should NOT be poured on Thanksgiving Day?
Dustin Wilson warns against pouring powerful wines that will overpower traditional preparations of Thanksgiving foods—and suggests adapting the meal a bit if you like your wines burly. "If you like really big, powerful wines and that's what you want to drink, then have some fun sprucing up your meal to make the food match up to the power of the wine. Use more flavorful sauces, season things up a bit more than usual. The wine and the food should be able to handle one another.
Josh Nadel says to avoid lean and steely, piercing high-acid white wines on Thanksgiving: "no bueno with the bird and all of the richly textured and seasoned accompaniments that need luscious wine friends to carry you deep into the night of feasting."
And sometimes, it's about just saying no. Wine writer Alice Feiring urges us to avoid Beaujolais Nouveau at all costs: "Goes with nothing and excites no one." Instead, seek out cru Beaujolais. (More on that below.)
What They're Drinking
So what do wine experts drink at Thanksgiving? Feiring is excited to open up some festive large-format bottles: "Up for possibilities is a magnum of 2008 La Clarine Farm Syrah from the Sierra Foothills, [as well as] a magnum of Clos de la Roilette '07, a gorgeous Beaujolais from the village of Fleurie."
Juliette Pope tends toward the aromatic: "For this meal to end all meals, I lean toward lighter whites such as a Kabinett-level German Riesling, like Selbach-Oster's "Zeltinger Schlossberg" 2010, or a Loire Chenin Blanc like Domaine de Belliviere's 2009 "Prémices" Jasničres. In either case that succulent, mouthwatering mix of slight sweetness with racy acidity and light body is addictive and versatile."
If you must have red, Pope continues, cru Beaujolais is the way to go: "top-tier Gamay's concentrated berry/cherry fruit tempered with spice will take you through the meal without weighing you down." Pope suggests seeking out Marcel Lapierre, Jean Paul Brun or Christophe Pacalet.
For best value, Kerrie O'Brien of DBGB says to seek out wines from the Jura: "they're reminiscent of Burgundy but at a fraction of the price." O'Brien loves the earthy, gamey, cherry flavors from Jacques Puffeney Trousseau 'Cuvee les Berangeres'. "For me," says O'Brien, "Thanksgiving is all about pairing with the hearty side dishes."
Or, try a different tack. How about an all-bubbly Thanksgiving? "People tend to thing about Champagne as something to break open at the beginning of the evening and then put away when the food comes out," says Cheryl Wakerhauser of Pix Patisserie in Portland. Those folks are really missing out, says Wakerhauser. "Champagne has great acidity, allowing it to stand up to the richest of foods and the bubbles make it a constant refreshing palate cleanser between courses." (And between bites.)
But perhaps we've been thinking about this the wrong way. Importer Terry Theise says Thanksgiving is not about pairing wine and food—it's about pairing wine and people. "It doesn't matter what you drink unless all your companions are wine lovers," quips Theise. "If they're merely relatives, then drink low alcohol wines if you like them [the relatives], and high alcohol wines if you dislike them, since the latter will get them unconscious that much faster."
What will you be drinking at Thanksgiving this year?