Everything You Need to Know to Choose Great Wines for Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is upon us again, and I am sure all of you are looking forward to relaxed gatherings with friends and family. Small or large, thoughts are not just on the food to be prepared, but also on the wines to serve. Choosing Thanksgiving wines should be an enjoyable task, not riddled with anxiety. Read on for some tips to help you chose confidently and stay within budget — and I'll share what I'm serving this year as well.

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Tips for Choosing Thanksgiving Wines

First up, here are a few simple guidelines. I first posted these helpful ‘tips’ back in 2008. They are still as relevant today.

  • Be realistic - The bigger the gathering the less likely you are to please everyone. And that is okay! After all, Thanksgiving is most importantly about having friends and family together.
  • Keep it simple - Go for food-friendly wines – light to medium in body. Avoid overly big, powerful wines that might overwhelm the food.
  • Stick to your budget - As Thanksgiving gatherings tend to be large, the cost of the wine is sure to be a concern. You don't have to spend over $20 a bottle to get a delicious wine. There are plenty of delicious wines between $10 and $15 per bottle. Or, this could be the occasion to try that bag-in-box wine. They keep getting better and better.
  • Trust your own palate. We can all taste. Choose wines that you like, and you think your guests will like. Try not to be swayed by scores or persuasive advertising.
  • Remember, it is only wine - there is no really serious downside. Perfect pairings are rare and many wines pair sufficiently well with a wide range of dishes.
  • Experiment and remember that matching the wine to the occasion and your budget is as important as matching it with the food.
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Mary’s Picks for Thanksgiving 2013

For many years I have doggedly stuck to the idea of only serving American wines for Thanksgiving. This year I am breaking with tradition, and serving a diverse mix of wines from all over the world. No disrespect to American wines – they will still feature strongly on my table. Only, this year they will be in the company of other wines, which I believe deserve a place on the Thanksgiving table. The eclectic mix of dishes that constitute the ‘Thanksgiving table’ can well and truly handle my diverse selection.

At the last count, Thanksgiving for us this year will comprise about 15 people. Some loyal regulars and some newbies including a family of vegetarians to spice up the mix and keep me on my toes in the kitchen.

Sparkling Wines

I always start our Thanksgiving festivities with a glass of bubbly. It puts guests (and ‘moi’ - the pot walloping chef) in the holiday mood and does wonders to whet the appetite. This is my shortlist from which I will eventually select two or three to serve.

As usual I will have an American Sparkler or two. Schramsberg is a very reliable regular, as are Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros and Domaine Chandon – all based in California and making fine sparkling wines using the traditional method of production and classic Champagne grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These wines retail for between $20-$30.

My other considerations this year are as follows:

TrentoDOC – a very fine traditional method sparkling wine designation in Northern Italy’s Trentino region. Ferrari is by far the most well known exported producer available in the United States. The Ferrari Perlé Brut, 2006, which is on my shortlist sells for about $35.

Alongside TrentoDOC I am looking at a few Crémant wines. Crémant is a designated style of sparkling wine made in France in seven different regions – Alsace, Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Die, Jura, Limoux and the Loire. My current favorites are either Crémant de Jura or Crémant de Loire. They are made using the traditional method and from either the traditional Champagne varieties or the varieties local to the area. The level of effervescence is usually slightly more gentle than Champagne.

Sekt is also on the short list. Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine. Unfortunately it does not infer whether the wine is made using the traditional method or tank method. Sekt is also not exclusive to Germany. In fact many of the better Sekt wines available on the US market are from Austria. In buying German Sekt look for ‘Deutscher Sekt’ or ‘Deutscher Sekt from a designated region’ on the label.

For something very different this year I am going to throw in a sparkling Malbec from Argentina. Specifically the Alma Negra Malbec Sparkling Rose, which I recently tasted ‘sur place’ in Argentina and I am delighted to see that it is widely available in the US for about $19.

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White Wines

For whites my key criteria are refreshing acidity, bright fruit and are not overly oaked as these are the most versatile at the table. Aromatic or off-dry wines are very accommodating, as they pair with the more difficult tart flavors like cranberry, chutney and spices.

Yes, I will definitely include a Chardonnay from one of California’s cooler ‘fog-influenced’ areas such as Carneros, the cooler parts of Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley. Possibilities on my hit list this year are the 2011 Migration Chardonnay from Russian River Valley ($30), the 2011 Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($35) the 2011 Gary Farrell Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($35) or the more modestly priced 2011 Saintsbury Chardonnay, Carneros ($20).

Vermentino is one of my white grapes of the moment. Vermentino is grown in Italy (including Sardinia) and in France, where it is known as Rolle. In Liguria it is called Pigato and in Piedmont it is called Favorita. One of my favorites is the 2011 Poggio al Tesoro Vermentino 'Solosole' ($20) which was a recent wine of the week.

Following my October trip to Argentina Torrontes is now firmly on my Thanksgiving wine list. It is a distinctive aromatic grape, with bright acidity and stone fruit aromas and flavors with a spicy kick. Think Gewürztraminer but less rich and crisper. Excellent wines to seek out are the 2012 Nieto Sentiner Torrontes, Cafayte ($13) or 2011 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2011 ($15).

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It is hard to imagine Thanksgiving without a Riesling of some kind – especially one that is off-dry or even on the sweet side. If German Riesling is your preference, look for wines labeled ‘Feinherb — not an official classification but sweeter than halbtrocken, Kabinett or even Spätlese level wines. Favorites of mine include the 2012 Dönnhoff Estate Riesling (Feinherb), Nahe $21, the 2011 Clemens Busch Mosel Riesling Trocken, ($20) or the 2012 Josef Leitz Rüdesheimer Drachenstein "Dragonstone" Riesling QbA, Rheingau ($17).

Great Riesling is not limited to Germany. For a change you might like to try something from Alsace (e.g. Trimbach), Austria (e.g. Gobelsberger) or from our very own Washington State. One I recently tasted and loved is the 2010 Buty "The Beast-Sphinx" Wallula Vineyard Columbia Valley Riesling ($25).

Of course value is on all our minds – especially when catering for a crowd. In that case, you might consider my last week’s wine of the week 2012 Monte Velho White from Portugal’s Alentejo region ($10).

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Red Wines

For red wines, the first thing I seek out is ‘refreshment’ – and especially with all that rich Thanksgiving food on my plate. So opt for fruity and light-to-medium bodied wines that are neither very tannic nor very oaky. For so long Pinot Noir has long been the preferred partner for turkey – deservedly so and so it will definitely feature on my table.

My choices will probably not be from Burgundy, but instead from the neighboring Loire Valley as well as from Germany (where Pinot Noir is called Spätburgunder) and the cooler areas of California. Specific wines on my shopping list include 2007 Weingut Prinz Hendelberg Spätburgunder Trocken, Rheingau, Germany ($20); 2008 Fournier Père et Fils Sancerre Rouge ‘ Les Belles Vignes’, Loire Valley,($25) and the 2010 Domaine Philippe Gilbert Menetou-Salon Rouge, Loire Valley, ($26).

Venturing into the New World, I quite fancy another bottle of the 2012 Leyda Vineyard Las Brisas Pinot Noir, Chile, $22 – a wine first tasted during my October visit to Chile.

Not forgetting California, all the Chardonnay producers cited above make excellent PInot Noir wines. To that list I would add Fulcrum's 2011 On Point Pinot Noir , Sonoma Coast, $36 and the 2011 Evening Land Vineyards "Blue Label" PInot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon at $25.

Beyond Pinot Noir my wish list has Schiava from Italy’s Alto Adige region – a local variety that makes delightful light-to medium-bodied, savory reds with cherry-like flavors. Wines to look for include the 2010 Cantina Terlano St. Magdalener "Häusler," ($19) or the 2011 Elena Walch, Schiava ($15).

Next up is Bonarda (called Charbono in California). While I had tasted the occasional Bonarda wine, it was really during my trip to Argentina that I had my ‘ah-ha’ moment, and immediately thought ‘Thanksgiving’. Bonarda wines are more fruity, juicier and lighter in body than Malbec – just perfect for pairing with your turkey. The 2012 Nieto Senetiner Bonarda Reserva, Mendoza, $15 or the 2012 El Enemigo Bonarda, Mendoza ($25) are delicious options.

While I may still opt for a straight 100% Zinfandel wine, I recently tasted the 2012 Ravenswood ‘Besieged’, from Sonoma County. It is a blend of Carignan, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Alicante Bouchet and Barbera. It tasted so succulent and juicy that it shot to near the top of my Thanksgiving shopping list. And at $16 – the price is just right.

The Key – Experiment

To end this post, I will just reiterate my last tip from above. Experiment and remember that matching the wine to the occasion and your budget is as important as matching it with the food. Have fun.

That said I would love to hear from our readers about their ideas for thanksgiving wines.

(Image credits: Rachel Joy Baransi; Mary Gorman-McAdams)