Thursday, November 15, 2012

Choosing Thanksgiving Wines

There's a lot conventional wisdom about serving wine with Thanksgiving dinner. Whether it's useful depends on what you're looking for in the wine. Is your goal to complement the food? Serve something really amazing? Or ideally both?

Or do you like to break the rules and drink what you like? Years ago, I remember reading an article on wine pairing that concluded that, although there are certain combinations of wine and food that may “go” together for various reasons, really you should drink what you like. I found that quite liberating and I've applied it to my thinking of what to pair with Thanksgiving.

Chris and I tend toward big reds. We drink a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel. We experiment with blends and other interesting reds too (Petite Sirah has been another favorite lately). If we ever make it to France for a wine tour, don't look for us in Burgundy. We'll be hanging out in Bordeaux.

However, big reds tend to be the tannic and, while I'm not afraid of letting a wine outshine the food, I don't want its bitterness to be overpowering. If you want a bold red for Thanksgiving, something fruity will do a better job blending in with the savory, spicy and sweet mix of main course dishes. For my bold red, I went with the Marietta Cellars Sonoma County 2010 Zinfandel ($22), which had the fruitiness and bold flavor I was looking for.

I also wanted some softer choices. Lately, a lot of people have been flocking to Beaujolais Nouveau, which is a "new" wine in that it is quickly bottled and sold soon after harvest. The lack of aging means lacks of tannins and full fruit flavor. Generally it's a little too slight for my taste though, so for a softer Thanksgiving red I turn to the more traditional choice of Pinot Noir.

Selecting Pinot Noir can be tricky. I find that, unlike other red varietals, low-priced Pinot is often not very good. To get good Pinot Noir you have to be prepared to open your wallet a bit wider. Because of this, it's not a wine I drink regularly, although when I find a good one it can be quite impressive.

I visited the WillaKenzie winery in Yamhill, Oregon, last year and tasted their expertly crafted Pinot Noirs. The WillaKenzie Estate Willamette Valley 2009 Pierre Leon Pinot Noir ($46) is widely available in wine stores and doesn't disappoint. This pinot had a lot of flavor but didn't overpower the food. It was my favorite of these three wines.

Many people default to white wine for Thanksgiving because they see that white turkey flesh and think that's what “goes.” And while I have a white wine in my trio this year, you won't find a bold oaky Chardonnay there. America's best-selling varietal just doesn't seem a good fit for Thanksgiving. It's just a bit too bold. Consulting with the wine staff at Calvert-Woodley, I ended up with the Jean-Marc Crochet - Sancerre Chêne Marchand 2010 ($25). Sancerre, a French wine from the Loire Valley, is primarily Sauvignon Blanc. It has a nice acidity that works well with a lot of different flavors. 

So, in conclusion, I fully support the "drink what you like" idea, but putting a little thought into choosing something that will pair well with the variety of flavors on the Thanksgiving table will make what you drink ever the more special.


  1. Good advice, dear. Now when do we leave for Bordeaux?

  2. I'd love to go there. I think it would be really great.