Tuesday, November 17, 2009

10 guidelines for Thanksgiving wines

Every food magazine has to do a Wines with Thanksgiving piece this time of year, which means every wine writer has written one. I've done a few, trying each time to get some clever new angle, because that's the way to stand out in the print world.

Here, though, I'm writing for free, not trying to sell some editor, so I can just give you the straight dope. Here are 10 guidelines for enjoying wines with Thanksgiving, and they don't change much from year to year -- just like Thanksgiving dinner itself.

1) Thanksgiving is not a great meal for a superstar wine
When I have a really special wine, I want it to be the star of the meal. This is not going to happen on Thanksgiving. Moreover, if there are more than 6 wine drinkers, everybody will get less than one full glass to appreciate the superstar wine. That's fine for tasting, but Thanksgiving is not about sampling -- it's about consuming and enjoying.

2) Thanksgiving is not for dumping bad wines
I have disposed of many wines I don't want at pre-Christmas parties, because people will fill up their glass with anything. At Thanksgiving, your family and friends are going to sit down and drink that wine right in front of you. I don't want to spend $75 on a Thanksgiving wine, but I don't want to be embarrassed either. If you're bringing wine, consider spending $15 to $25 a bottle.

3) There are too many foods on the table to find one perfect wine
You want a great wine with turkey? I can find you one. Stuffing? Sure. But a great wine with turkey, stuffing, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce? Forget it. There is no one perfect choice, so don't obsess over finding it.

4) Whites, bubbles and pinks go with more Thanksgiving foods than reds
There's only one dish on most Thanksgiving tables that goes well with red wine: Mashed potatoes. Light-bodied red wine is also good with turkey and gravy, but it's not usually the best choice. If you really want to match the food, lean most heavily toward whites, bubbles and pinks.

5) People will drink red wine despite point 4
People who like red wine, like red wine. I'm not going to tell them not to. I try to bring lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol reds that will go a little better with the food. But some people want to drink Zinfandel for philosophical reasons (being thankful that Americans discovered this grape, almost extinct in its homeland of Croatia), and I'm not going to make them drink Chenin Blanc instead.
I had a commenter on another post say that he always opens aged Bordeaux on Thanksgiving because it's a special occasion. I want to come to his house -- if you open it, I'll surely drink it. That said, I would push my plate of slightly sweet food out of the way and enjoy a complex, elegant, special wine like that on its own.

6) If you put food on the sideboard, put the wine there too
This is how I serve wine at Thanksgiving: I open a dozen or more bottles of all different kinds of wines and let people pour for themselves. I encourage people to try more than one, and to be frank about likes and dislikes. My friends who aren't in the wine world are often excited to have this many choices, and the odds are good that you can please everyone this way. Very few people have formal dinner service at Thanksgiving. Why shouldn't your wine be served buffet-style as well?

7) Bubbly is a better aperitif than Jack Daniel's
People are going to drink and nibble before the meal. Why not make it festive, by chilling a few bottles of bubbly? I love greeting people with a glass of bubbly; there's no better way to say "welcome." And you might find family tension is eased when your uncles don't get into the whiskey until well after dinner.
You don't need Champagne for this: Schramsberg, Argyle, Iron Horse and Gruet all make excellent domestic bubbly.

8) Here's a short list of wines I really like at Thanksgiving
This is by no means comprehensive. I like to drink American wines at Thanksgiving -- it is our holiday. So I like New York Riesling, Oregon Pinot Gris, Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, California Sauvignon Blanc, Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer. My favorite American roses are usually made from Pinot Noir. For American red, it's almost always Pinot Noir (California or Oregon), though I also like Barbera.
I could tell you about all the foreign wines that go well with Thanksgiving, but you can read that elsewhere. Generally, it's lighter stuff, Old World style.
But consider buying American on this one day of the year. The grapegrowers will be thankful.

9) Here's a short list of wines I don't think go well with Thanksgiving dinner
People can and will drink what they want. That said, I personally save heavier, oakier wines for meals that aren't as problematic. I never have Cabernet with Thanksgiving, and rarely Merlot. I don't like Syrah much at this meal.
Everything else is in a gray area. Take Chardonnay -- it's good with turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but problematic with some of the sweeter and more vegetal side dishes. I usually bring it -- it's still America's most popular varietal, so I'm sure to please someone. If I'm in the mood or it's really yummy I drink it myself.

10) This is a great meal for dessert wines
Dessert can last hours at Thanksgiving. I like to bring a couple dessert wines to prolong the dining experience. Don't worry at all about what kind of dessert wine, because it's not going to be paired with anything specific. Just get something a wine shop you trust says is good -- which is good buying advice for the other 364 days of the year as well.


Tricerapops said...

great advice all around, bravo.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Tri.

guren said...

I think that #6 is a particularly good idea. Provide the guests with two wine glasses each and let them help themselves. This way has the added benefit of relieving the host of having to constantly check how much wine remains in open bottles and opening new bottles throughout the evening.