Few meals get as much airtime in the wine pairing advice world as Thanksgiving. It makes sense: Thanksgiving is such a motley crew of flavors (and guests!) that no one wine fits all. There’s still plenty of merit in debating the reds and whites (and bubbles) of the matter because having something drinkable on your table benefits everyone. It shouldn’t cause undue stress though (save that for submerging your turkey into the deep fryer), so whether hosting or hosted, just follow these guidelines and then buy (or bring) as much as you can carry.
Part of the utter joy (and oddity) of Thanksgiving Day is that little more is expected of us beyond offering something we are thankful for and consuming inhumane quantities of food and drink. This requires some preparation of mind and body. Since pre-feast nibbles tend to be fatty and salty (as most good appetizers are), you’ll want to start with a drink that’s thirst-quenching, not palate-fatiguing – and definitely not combustible. Think of lithe, zippy little numbers with bubbles and/or high acid and low alcohol. Ciders check all of these boxes, pairing beautifully with everything from savory cheese coins to bacon-wrapped anything. And what could be more fitting at Thanksgiving than drinking an in-season colonial-era beverage?
Wines for the table should be easy and ambidextrous. Most families have at least one delightfully trashy dish they’d be loath to give up. Whether it’s sweet potato casserole covered in marshmallows or mushroom soup-canned green bean casserole, it’s part of what makes Thanksgiving so loveable. This same kind of open-armed, free-for-all acceptance should apply to wine too.
Set out a smattering of reasonably-priced bottles of white and red and let guests help themselves. Since the meal is traditionally served as a buffet, there’s no need to course out the wines, but do be sure to keep them chilled! Set a few extra glasses out in case guests want a little white and a little red. This is no time to be stingy with the stemware.
For whites, stick to young, bright wines with plenty of acidity, aromatics, and, if not a touch of residual sugar, at least lots of mid-palate fruit. Austerely dry or overtly oaked wines become positively punishing with cranberry sauce and downright dehydrating with sausage-studded stuffing. Best bets include Albariño, Arneis, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Semillon, Verdelho and Viognier, all of which have the body to stand up to that big bird, but also the acidity to cut through butter-laden mashed taters.
Versatile choices for reds include lighter-bodied, fruit-focused reds with invigorating acidity. Barbera, Blaufrankisch, Bordeaux-style blends, Dolcetto, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Frappato, Gamay, Grenache, Lagrein, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zweigelt will all wash down that gravy (with or without lumps!) and have you reaching for more. Tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Nebbiolo are best saved for steak night.
Thanksgiving isn’t the time to bust out your cellar’s treasures either. The funk and evolving complexity of age-worthy wines require more serious food (and drinkers) to be fully appreciated. You don’t want to pull out a 2001 Puligny-Montrachet just to have your Aunt Velma make a goblet-sized white wine spritzer out of it.
Finally, since the drinking starts early – sometimes once the whites of Al Roker’s eyes appear on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – steer clear of wines above 14 percent alcohol unless you want a man (or woman) down in the pumpkin pie. Zinfandel, a favorite Thanksgiving recommendation among retailers and wine writers because of its all-American heritage, often clocks in at 15 to 16 percent alcohol by volume. Those almost port-like proportions are more likely to put you under the table than at it. Save the high-octane, fortified stuff (or, better yet, soothing and sippable digestives) for dessert, after which you can sober everyone up with strong coffee and a brisk walk before bidding them goodnight and changing into your pants with the most forgiving waistband.
So while there’s no one answer to what to pull the cork on turkey day, there’s more than a caseful of solutions, all of which make us very, very thankful – and very, very thirsty.