Late autumn, and harvest is done. We have at last conceded our fate and moved indoors. It’s time to lay a fire in the hearth, light the oven, and excavate the stew pot, roasting pans, and baking dishes from the dark recesses of our cupboards. It’s time to cook comfort food.
The traditional Thanksgiving meal is comfort food’s quintessence, a celebration of cooking. (There are few raw foods on the Thanksgiving table—at least in my house.) And because it’s also a collective sigh of gratitude for our good fortune, the meal is ablaze with a spectrum of flavors:
Savory: roasted turkey, gravy, potatoes, dressing
Buttery: mashed potatoes, gratins, buttered vegetables, pastry, pie
Herbal: sage, thyme, savory, bay, parsley
Earthy: sausage dressing, potatoes, root vegetables, dark meat turkey
Creamy: gratins, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, whipped cream
Salty: cheeses, gratins, gravy, relishes
Sweet: squash, yams, pie
Tangy: cranberries, fruit relishes, pickles
Bitter: spinach, chard, kale, collards, walnuts, pecans
Spicy: nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper
Nutty: chestnut dressing, pecan pie, nuts with a cheese course
Given such variety, it’s no wonder we get flummoxed when choosing wine for the meal. No single wine pairs perfectly with all of these flavors, although some can bridge multiple dishes. Riesling’s one good example, plus Pinot Noir and gamay-based Beaujolais. That’s why these wines are traditional recommendations.
But there’s also no need to stick to one wine, or a single white and red. A range of wines delightfully echoes the theme of abundance, and provides diners with options to match the medley of flavors on the table. Here are a few additional recommendations to guide your planning:
- Consider the style of your gathering. Nuanced wines, such as older vintages or delicate whites, can get drowned out by a boisterous party. You want wines with enough oomph to stand up to robust flavors—and robust discussion.
- Keep alcohol levels low so diners stay alert—this is especially important if your meal is served mid-day. Look for wines at or below 13% alcohol.
- Consider serving local or American wines to echo the theme of the holiday. Hard ciders and ales, especially from regional sources, are great pairings, too.
- Avoid highly extracted, jammy red wines, which can feel too heavy with a big meal, and tannic reds like Bordeaux, which can overwhelm poultry and vegetable dishes. Stick with light bodied reds with good acidity.
Sparkling wines are refreshing and
celebratory, and also pique the appetite. Bubbles scrub the palate between bites. Often
low in alcohol, they’re great starter wines some will choose to enjoy throughout
the meal. Blanc de Noirs Champagne is terrific with poultry. Cleansing.
Pair with: Hors d’oeuvres, buttery pastries, roasted turkey
Alternative: Cava, Prosecco, Moscato
with lighter dishes and starters, especially vegetables. They match the acidity of
cranberry relish, pickles, and conserves, and cut the richness of butter and
cream-based dishes. Refreshing.
Pair with: Appetizers, vegetables, vegetarian dishes, fruit relishes, richer dishes
Traditional: Dry Riesling
Alternative: Albariño, unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Whites with a hint of sweetness integrate well with squash, yams, cornbread, and other sweet dishes, and balance salty ones. Perceived sweetness comes from actual residual sugar in the wine, but floral and fruit aromatics can give a similar impression. Harmonious.
Pair with: Squash and yams, salty dishes (gratins), peas
Traditional: Off-dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer
Alternative: Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Muscat
Full-bodied whites balance and integrate with white-meat poultry, gravy, butter and cream-based dishes, and
butter-dressed vegetables. They have the body to stand up to bold flavors but enough
acidity to offset their richness. Harmonious.
Pair with: Roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, squash and yams, gratins and creamy dishes
Alternative: Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Rhône white blends, Rioja Blanco
Rosés offer lively acidity but
more pronounced body than white wines, letting them stand up to richer flavors. They’re great
with poultry, vegetable dishes, and vegetarian fare, and also cut the richness of cream
and butter-based dishes. Refreshing.
Pair with: Roasted turkey, vegetables, vegetarian dishes, fruit relishes
Traditional: Provence rosé
Alternative: Pinot Noir rosé, Grenache/GSM rosé, Lambrusco, Orange wines
Juicy reds with good acidity are terrific with dark-meat turkey, and supple tannins ensure they go well with light meat, too. They’re good with gravy, dressing, and gratins, and are light enough for vegetarian fare. Brilliant.
Pair with: Roasted turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, fruit relishes, vegetables and greens
Traditional: Cru Beaujolais, Pinot Noir
Alternative: Grenache, Barbera, Dolcetto
Savory, spicy reds with supple tannins complement the darker flavors on the plate: dark meat turkey, sausage or chestnut dressing, potatoes. Carignan goes with cranberry; herbal and peppery notes in Syrah and Rhône blends pick up sage, thyme, savory, and other seasonings. Integrative.
Pair with: Roasted dark meat turkey, gravy, sausage dressing, roasted potatoes
Traditional: Zinfandel, Syrah
Alternative: Rhône red blends, Carignan, Rioja Crianza
Dessert wines must be sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the wine will seem flabby. Tawny Port and Madeira pair with pecan and pumpkin pie; sweet whites pair with fruit desserts. Sweet sparkling wines feel especially refreshing after a big meal. Integrative or cleansing.
Pair with: Pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie
Traditional: Tawny or Ruby Port, late-harvest Riesling
Alternative: Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Sauternes, Moscato d’Asti, Recioto di Soave
Still confused? Keep it simple. Grab some Riesling, Pinot Noir, and a bottle of your favorite bubbly. After all, Thanksgiving is not really about the wine, but it is—consummately—about tradition.