Thanksgiving dinner preparation usually falls into one of two categories:
1. you make all the food and invite all the people and are in charge of everything (you might have helpers but you are the boss; the French word for boss is chef) or
2. everyone is assigned to bring a dish/contribution to the meal. Either way, I think you’ll either be selecting the wine or giving the wine order. Here is some advice for pairing wine with Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving dinner is a minefield of competing tastes and flavors. Let’s eliminate the biggest one - the turkey. Turkey is neutral in flavor. So let’s forget about pairing wine with bird because the turkey will pair nicely with a lot of different wines. The real struggle is with the side dishes and Thanksgiving dinner is more about the sides than the main dish. So, you need to “take a side.”
Pick one side dish that has intensity. Pick one that’s bold enough, spicy enough, and rich enough to command seconds. You can choose to pair the wine with candied yams, cranberry salad, garlic potatoes or stuffing. Aim for distinction and intensity. Which dish/side has the most distinct flavor? Choose that, because that will influence the rest of the food on the plate.
Here it is. The master pairing concept in one sentence: Match the intensity of the food with the intensity of the wine. Simple.
What the heck does that mean? Let’s look at the components of wine, which is made up of: aroma, sweetness, acidity, alcohol and in red wines, tannin. Each of these combine to make wine taste a specific way.
- Aroma is the smell of a wine - fruit, mineral, vegetal, herbal, etc.
- Sweetness is just that - sweet or the lack of sweet taste (also known as dry).
- Acidity is the tartness or lack of tartness in a wine.
- Alcohol can be sensed in three distinct ways: as an aroma, as a sweetness or as a heat sensation.
- Tannin is the drying effect a wine has on your tongue. It isn’t dry because of the absence of sweetness it’s dry because the tannin molecules are attaching to your saliva molecules and your tongue loses its slipperiness. Tannin in wine has the same mouth-drying effect as tannin in black tea or a green banana.
White wine suggestions: - Riesling from Germany or Washington State. These are sweet and most crowd-pleasing. They are fruity and aromatic and, in best examples, have a nice layer of acidity that balances the sweetness. Stick to the less sweet Rieslings noted on a German bottle by the words “Kabinett” or “Spätlese” or anything from Washington.
- Chardonnay from Burgundy, California, Australia or Chile. Chardonnay is a chameleon-like grape and each one will taste different depending on where it’s grown. The geographic list above is from most expensive to least, and you should expect more from paying more and less from paying less. Chilean Chardonnay will be the least expensive and will offer little opportunity for magic to happen in the way of a welcomed new flavor from your pairing. Chardonnay from Burgundy or California costs more and has the ability to make magic.
- Viognier (pronounced Vee-yon-yay) from France’s Rhone River Valley, California or Australia has a nice aroma and feel but a less dynamic taste range than Chardonnay (read that as: less chance to screw this up and more chance to impress with a cool-sounding wine).
- Gewurtztraminer from Alsace in France or from Washington. This is a very aromatic wine with lip-smacking acidity and high alcohol. This is probably the most elegant wine choice for a Thanksgiving meal.
Red wine suggestions: - Pinot Noir from California. Be careful here because pinot noir can be mouth-wateringly delicious or lean, thin and disappointing. Select carefully and don’t cheap out, there are no bargains when buying pinot noir, so expect to pay more for more flavor.
- Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire River Valley. Light, red and dry. Shouldn’t compete too much with anything and that’s the point when you’re trying to pair with marshmallow salad and sage stuffing. You’re never going to make a wine fit into those shoes, and cabernet franc won’t even try. There is something refreshing about that.
- Gamay from France’s Beaujolais region. When done right, this is a medium bodied wine that is light and fruity.
- Pinotage from South Africa. If you’ve got someone at your holiday table that wants a big, bold, red wine but you are afraid because your regular choices won’t pair with hazelnut and leek stuffing then serve a pinotage. This is a deep, red wine with supple smooth tannins and a pleasing smoky aroma and flavor. A pinotage served along with a gewurtztraminer should please everyone at the table.
Happy Thanksgiving and bon appétit!
David Devere is teaching wine classes locally. Contact him at email@example.com or visit savvynomad.com for the schedule and register for a class.