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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

Last Minute Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Suggestions

Hopefully you caught the results of the annual blind tasting to determine the best wines to pair with turkey on last week’s Wine Wednesday with Ziggy The Wine Gal, an absolute legend in the Sonoma wine community, but if you missed it I have a link to the recording here as well as the results, and some bonus thoughts.

I was invited to judge at the 28th annual Thanksgiving Wine Picks competition at Merriam Vineyards along with 14 other wine professionals that ranged from restaurant sommeliers to legendary winemakers. Together we blind tasted through over a hundred wines in the categories of Sparkling, White, Rose, Red, and Dessert, having a sip, then a nibble of roasted turkey until we came up with the ultimate pairings. It was actually a fascinating experiment, and not how I pair wine, but the task was to determine the best wines with turkey alone. When I asked Ziggy about that, she said that turkey was the one consistent on Thanksgiving tables (let’s not get into the tofurkey population), so in that regard it made sense. We discovered that you do not want a wine with noticeable tannins or oak if you want it to pair with the historically dry meat, you want something that leans more towards juicy and light. Even a fantastic wine can be ruined by an inappropriate pairing.

Fellow Wine Judge Kara Marie of Ra Ra Wine Co

As a former chef, I take wine pairings very seriously. Some might say too seriously at times, and I say the people that should, don’t take it seriously enough! When pairing wine it is all about the other components of the dish. The sauce, the starch, the vegetables, and of course the protein. I would say taking texture and temperature into consideration is also very important. So when we’re talking Thanksgiving, the stuffing and the gravy might compensate for the dry meat, or the chilled cranberry sauce and roasted sweet potatoes might present a different challenge for pairing, being on opposite ends of the taste spectrum. It’s a true challenge to find wines that will go with all of the above.

This could be the perfect occasion to bring some wines out of the cellar because of the special holiday, or you might NOT want to do that because your cousin is known to fill their glass to the brim and chug the wine as if it were water. You must gauge the room. I had one Thanksgiving where a wine being served was badly corked, and a relative said, “Tastes fine to me!” and proceeded to down the glass and promptly refill it. Last year we celebrated with a group of incredible wine professionals, and the wines that we shared were nothing less than superb, and the generosity flowed as we all were able to appreciate the special bottles and the conversations surrounding them. And then there was the one year that my best friend and I high tailed it to Mexico City and were drinking mezcal cocktails and there wasn’t a turkey in sight, but my mind wandered to Mexican interpretations of traditional dishes, and what those pairings would look like. One of my favorites that came out of my annual Thanksgiving leftover parties was turkey mole tamales, which would go wonderfully with a rich slightly chilled Zinfandel, but I digress.

If you are looking for a slam dunk, most likely to go with everything on the table wine that won't break the bank so you don’t have to hide it under the table, these are my go to’s. And as always, please visit your local wine retailers, they will steer you in the right direction.

  • Sparkling: Sparkling rose’s are perfect at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Look for Cremant de Bourgogne, or Cremant de Loire, or go straight to Champagne and look for a rose or a Blanc de Noir. The added complexity of the skin contact from the Pinot Noir or Pinot Munier makes this an ideal pairing. If you’re looking for something to sip beforehand to ease you into the night, I go for several bottles of Cava. The sparkling wine from Spain is a fraction of the price of a true Champagne, but made in the same method so the hangover isn’t as bad as a cheap Prosecco or another wine with bubbles added to the wine versus going through a secondary fermentation.

  • Rose: In a post summer season, there is a good chance that you’ll be able to find some excellent discounted roses, so why not grab a few bottles and try them next to each other? Because they likely have not seen any oak, have mild skin contact meaning minimum tannins, and they are generally lower in alcohol, this is a great category to go with Thanksgiving dishes.

  • Riesling: Yes, yes, yes. It will go with everything on the table. An off-dry white with a pop of acidity and low alcohol is perfect for so many reasons. Check the alcohol percentage, it’s the best way to tell how much residual sugar will be in the bottle, and I like mine hovering around 8% for that sensational balance. If it’s closer to 12% there is a good chance it will be dry (no residual sugar), and while still tasty, not as food friendly as something with a touch of the sweet stuff.

  • Gamay: Oh baby, while I completely spaced on Beaujolais Nouveau Day, I never show up to Thanksgiving celebrations without at least one bottle of the fresh, just released, bright and fun wine. But of course, Nouveau is just a fun style that is more of a celebration in a bottle than a serious wine like those made in the traditional method (without carbonic maceration). Gamay from Beaujolais is the best bargain in red wine in my opinion. The unassuming neighbor of the storied Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Gamay is thoughtful, approachable, delicious, and not insanely expensive. You pretty much can’t go wrong with this varietal at the Thanksgiving table.

  • Pinot Noir: The sky is the limit when it comes to Pinot, but there are some great bargains out there, and most of what is on the market is pretty great (try to avoid the big box stores when it comes to buying Pinot, a lot of shortcuts are made on those mass produced labels). Favorite regions are Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Willamette Valley, Loire Valley (also a great region for Gamay), Germany, New Zealand, and of course Burgundy, but make sure that Aunt Sally knows the meaning of 1er Cru before passing the bottle in her direction.

  • Dessert: Aha! Pay attention here. Do you have a cache of dessert wines in your collection that you just never get around to opening? I encourage you to bring a bottle or two out with dinner. Now you’ll want to make sure people are only pouring a couple of ounces, but you will be amazed at how well a Port or a Riesling will go with everything on the table. It’s not just for dessert, in fact, most dessert wines are terrible with dessert. Who knew?

What to skip:

Avoid oaky Chardonnay, or anything else that has seen new oak barrels for that matter. Leave the Cab and the Syrah in the cellar, and anything else that has pronounced tannins. Zinfandel can be okay, but should really be chilled so that the fruit characters shine through.

It’s always great to bring a bottle for the host, but don’t be afraid to bring wines that you want to drink. Ideally the wine will open up, the conversations will flow, there will be laughter, and gratitude…but if things go sideways at least ensure that you have something delicious to drown out the surrounding chaos.

Without further ado, here is the list of winners.


White Wine

Rosé Wine

Red Wine

Dessert Wine

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