Residents of the United States now consume more wine than any other nation in the world, and odds are overwhelming that they consume more of it on Thanksgiving Day than on any other day of the year. You might guess, on that basis, that we really know what we’re doing when picking wines for the occasion. However, almost all of the evidence runs to the contrary. The key facts are these: Most Americans are inexperienced and intimidated when it comes to pairing wines and foods (even on their best day), and, due to the peculiarities of the typical Thanksgiving meal, this is definitely not our best day.
We drink a lot of wine in the USA, but that’s mostly because we’re prosperous, which has nothing to do with being practiced. Of course, being prosperous is an excellent reason for giving thanks, but most of us have very little practical experience in pairing wines and foods.
Accordingly, modesty is appropriate for most of us, but when pressured to choose from among 100,000 available wines for a big occasion like Thanksgiving, modest can quickly turn to intimidation--or downright paralysis.
To make matters worse, the array of dishes involved in a classic Thanksgiving dinner set us up for failure when we’re picking a wine. Indeed, almost any wine you can imagine is going to run afoul of something on the table. Acidic wines that work with the cranberries then seem thin when hitting a rich stuffing or shrill when tried with sweet potatoes. Rich, ripe wines that hold their own against the stuffing then come off as fat and oafish when meeting white turkey meat (or those damned cranberries).
Even if you just forget about the side dishes and focus on the turkey when considering wine selection, you are still not out of the woods. The guest who only wants white breast meat has a pretty subtle (even austere) dish, and would best be served a white wine--and a pretty light, simple one at that. By contrast, those who love dark leg meat well slathered with gravy are sorely in need of a red wine--and a fairly gutsy one at that.
Tempting though it might be, ditching the turkey or substantially altering the meal isn't an option in most homes. Aunt Minnie would burst into tears right there at the table if deprived of her traditional trimmings, and Uncle Otto would make a scene if he didn't get his drumstick, so we’re cornered. Something’s gotta give, and it ain't going to be the food.
So, what’s the solution? Here’s my key principle for securing an excellent outcome on the Big Day: If you really want a successful match, keep the wine simple.
One of the most robust findings to emerge for me from 20 years of professional tasting and restaurant consulting is this: Complex wines are at their best with simple foods, but complex foods are best matched by simple wines.
A great old bottle of Bordeaux is at its best with roast beef or pot roast or simple leg of lamb, just as a simple preparation of duck or veal will let a great bottle of Burgundy or Barolo show all of its many dimensions. By the same token, the wines that really shine across a meal with lots of complex (even clashing) elements like Thanksgiving are usually ones that are balanced and restrained: Neither too sweet, nor tannic, nor acidic, nor woody, nor heavy, nor light.
If there’s nothing jarring about a wine, it is vastly less likely to prove jarring when paired with any particular food. By extension, the best way to navigate your way across the Thanksgiving table minefield is to play your shot right down the middle.
What does this mean in practical terms? Nothing more complicated than choosing wines made from certain grapes and sourced from particular places in the world that routinely show the perfect profile of balance in terms of flavor, structure and style to work with Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s my list of top performers in this profile:
Chasselas from Switzerland
Soave from Italy’s Veneto
Pinot Blanc from Alsace, Austria, or Oregon, or Pinot Bianco from Friuli
Garnacha Blanca / Grenache Blanc from Spain’s Catalonia or France’s Rhône
Moschofilero or Roditis from Greece
Chenin Blanc (a.k.a. “Steen”) from South Africa
Verdelho from Australia
Grüner Veltliner from Austria
Nero d’Avola from Sicily
Montepulciano from Italy’s Abruzzo
Garnacha from Spain’s Navarra
Dolcetto or Dogliani (a Dolcetto specialty zone) from Piedmont in Italy
Agiorghitiko from Greece
Cariñena from Aragón in Spain
Zweigelt from Austria
Pinot Noir from California, Oregon, New Zealand or Germany
All 15 of these wines will perform very well at your Thanksgiving table, and all 15 could be purchased for less than $20. Indeed, given the fact that a typical Thanksgiving meal involves a lot of variation in flavors and textures, relatively simple wines tend to perform especially well, so you’d be well advised to purchase reasonably priced examples of these wines. That will minimize the chances that you’ll get an oaky rendition. This is especially true of Pinot Noir: Spending more than $20 will indeed usually get you a better bottle of Pinot in overall terms, but it will usually get you a rendition that is less well suited to immediate consumption with Thanksgiving dinner.
So there you have it…a list of virtually foolproof selections that combine the virtues of high performance and low cost. If there’s any shortcoming in my list, it would probably be that there’s only entry from the USA for this mostly American holiday. If this is indeed a shortcoming, it is simply reflective of the fact that the United States remains relatively unsuccessful in making broad categories of wines marked by balance and restraint--as opposed to intensity and power based on very overt fruit. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but the exceptions are so conspicuous by their rarity that I still cannot recommend an entire category other than Pinot Noir under $20 in good conscience.
Service Tips for the Holiday:
Here are a few pointers that may help you, and perhaps one or two that might come as news even to more experienced wine lovers:
--If your wine glasses have been sitting in a cupboard for a month, they've surely picked up a little dust even if they don't look dusty, and some of these particles can produce undesirable aromas or flavors that can seriously screw up your wine. Be sure to rinse your glasses out with hot water and dry them with a lint-free dishtowel.
--If you'll be serving sparkling wine or Champagne, these glasses need to be washed differently. As beer lovers know, soap residue kills bubbles, and whereas a flat beer is a disappointment, a flat glass of Champagne is a catastrophe. If you are prepared to rinse endlessly and take your chances (like my WRO colleague Michael Apstein), then go for it. However, my mantra is: No soap, ever! You can remove fingerprints and lipstick from the outside of glasses when perfectly inverted with a lightly soapy sponge, but never let any soap into the interior, which should only be rinsed with very hot water. Dish towels can retain soap residues, so air-dry sparkling glasses or use paper towels. If one of your guests thinks it is “icky” that you don't use soap on your sparkling wine glasses, solve the problem by striking that person from the guest list.
--If you'll be serving sparkling wine (and if you’ve got it, you should damned well serve it!) please take note: Don't put a damper on your dinner by blasting someone with the cork. This is serious: A Champagne cork can really do a number on your eyeball, and since the hospital emergency room will already be packed with inept turkey carvers, you'll be there for hours if you suffer a mishap when opening your bubbly by the ballistic method. So: Keep constant and very firm downward pressure on the cork, even when unwinding the wire cage, which will require exactly six twists. Keep the cage on the cork, as it will enhance your grip. Ease the cork from the bottle by grasping it firmly as you twist the base of the bottle from side to side. A nearly inaudible result is what you want, with the faintest "pfffffffft" showing that you know what you're doing.
--Pay attention to serving temperature! Most Americans are guilty of serving their whites too cold and their reds too warm. Wines pulled directly from refrigerators--much less ice buckets--are typically so cold that aromas are suppressed and flavors flattened. Similarly, the old rule of thumb about serving reds at room temperature has led millions of people to mishandle their wine. The rule made sense when coined by some guy in the 18th century, but only because he lived in an English manor house without central heat. Reds lack focus and seem overly alcoholic at 72 degrees, and are much better at 62. So, stick your reds into the fridge for 20 minutes and pull your whites out of if for 20 minutes before cracking into them.
--Don't overfill glasses when serving wine at the table. Sparkling wines can be filled to slightly above halfway, since they look much better with that fill level, and you don't want your guests thinking you are cheap on a day when you are supposed to be celebrating bounty. However, glasses for table wine should never be more than half full. An overfilled glass has no open space to collect the wine's aromas, which are absolutely crucial for appreciating it fully.
--Last but not least: When you've gone through all of this and are finally ready to wine and dine, just relax and enjoy this wonderful beverage. It is famously difficult to get a perfect wine to harmonize with everything involved in Thanksgiving dinner, and you shouldn't be shamed if your choice isn't perfect with everything on the plate. After all, this meal brings wine-pairing experts to their knees. And if some self-appointed expert at your table makes a nasty crack about your choice, don't dignify his (it will surely be a he) comment with a reply. Just roll your eyes. And know that everyone else at the table is on your side!