Thanksgiving Wine Choosing 101: Helpful Tips

published Nov 17, 2011
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Thanksgiving is upon us again. 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 what wines to serve if you are hosting. Maybe you have been invited to friends and are looking for a nice wine to gift. This should be an enjoyable task, not riddled with anxiety. Read on for some tips and ideas to help you chose confidently and stay within budget.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A few weeks ago I posted on how Pinot Noir and Thanksgiving have long been such comfortable and well suited table partners. All well and good if you like Pinot Noir (which I am sure many of you do), but good Pinot can be expensive. Or, perhaps you do not particularly care for Pinot Noir. Maybe you stick to white wine? Maybe you want to mix it up by offering a selection of different wines, so that guests can make their own selectiongs.

Whatever your aims, here are some tips to help you navigate the profusion of different wine styles, brands and varietals prominently merchandized to entice you to buy.

Key tips for choosing Thanksgiving wines
I suggested these few guidelines 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. 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 really good 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 with a wide range of flavors.

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What is a food-friendly wine?
This term is bandied about a lot. But what exactly is a food-friendly wine?
Food-friendly wines enhance rather than overwhelm food. Food-friendly wines tend to be balanced wines, balanced in the sense that they do not show extremes. By that I mean extremes of power, alcohol, ripeness, oak or extraction. Food-friendly wines are refreshing, lively, juicy and generally have good acidity to cut through fat and richness in food. They can certainly be full-bodied, but are never heavy.

While the Old World (essentially Europe) has traditionally been regarded as the cradle of food-friendly wines, it by no means has the exclusivity. As wine consumption has grown and evolved in the United States, there has been a noticeable switch by producers to making wines that show more restraint, freshness and, essentially food-friendliness.

Thanksgiving food-friendly wines styles

Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wines evoke celebration and are a nice way to start the Thanksgiving festivities. Crisp and lively, sparkling wines cleanse the palate and pair well with a wide variety of rich flavors. California is a great source of excellent, budget-friendly sparkling wines, as is New Mexico (Gruet), Oregon and Washington. For $20 or less you can get something really quite delicious.

White Wine
What fun you can have here. In some ways I think Thanksgiving is more suited to white wine. Look for refreshing wines, unoaked, or with subtle, well-integrated oak. Aromatic or off-dry styles such as Riesling work particularly well with the richness and spices that prevail in many Thanksgiving dishes. Some varieties and styles that I particularly like include:

  • Pinot Grigio – both the lighter fruity ‘Pinot Grigio’ style as well as the more full bodied and textured ‘Pinot Gris’ style. Oregon produces some wonderful Pinot Gris wines.
  • Riesling – Aromatic variety. The breadth of dry, off-dry and sweet styles makes Riesling a natural choice for Thanksgiving. The Fingerlakes (New York) as well as Washington State are two great sources of US Riesling.
  • Viognier – While not particularly known for its high acidity, Viognier wines can be delightfully aromatic and if the grapes are harvested early enough bright and refreshing. The Central Coast is a great place to start looking for excellent California Viognier.
  • Chardonnay – This may seem like a boring addition to the list, but Chardonnay from cooler regions such as Carneros, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast as well as Oregon can be deliciously fresh, lively and perfect with turkey, smoked salmon, roast potatoes and lots of classic vegetable dishes.

Red Wine
For red wines, go for wines that are refreshing, fruity and not too tannic. Pinot Noir exactly fits this profile. Beyond Pinot look for:

  • Gamay – Fresh, light and fruity. Light enough for appetizers and yet can carry through the main course. Beaujolais is the first that comes to mind. But you might also try a Maçon Rouge or a juicy little Gamay from the Loire. Okay these are all French. Oregon also makes some great Gamay wines – look for Evening Land Vineyards Gamay Noir.
  • Zinfandel – “The” American grape – so how fitting for Thanksgiving. Great brambly-berry fruit, and lowish tannins that will enhance any turkey and all its trimmings. Look for wines made from gnarly old vines in Sonoma.
  • Syrah – Dark red and black fruit and notes will enhance any meat course. Perfect with turkey leg meat. Look for excellent examples from the Central Coast
  • Grenache – Not noted for its high acidity, there is something special about Grenache – low in tannin with spicy, red berried fruits (raspberry, strawberry, red currants), these wines can be delightful, especially if unoaked or only slightly oaked. A traditional Southern Rhone variety, great California examples come from the Central Valley as well as Sonoma


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Mary’s Personal Picks for Thanksgiving

As usual will have our gathering of friends and family: My husband’s aunt Joan from Toronto, Canadian friends who live in New York as well as a family of Irish expats who moved to New York in 2010. A tidy gathering of 11 in total. While I am still not fully decided, these are some of the wines on my shortlist this year.

Sparkling Wines
NV Roederer Estate Sparkling Wine, Anderson Valley, $20 – I feel I am always recommending this wine, but truly I think this sparkler represents fantastic value. Roederer Estate is owned by the renowned Champagne house Louis Roederer in Reims. This is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; it has a lively mousse, crisp with attractive orchard and citrus fruit flavors with hints of brioche and biscuit.

2007 Domaine Carneros, Brut, California, $20 – If Le Rêve is not on the cards, their regular Brut style is fantastic value. It is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Lovely floral notes on the nose with hints of freshly baked bread and toast. Crisp, pure and clean on the palate with a creamy mousse and flavors of red apple compote, redcurrants and blood orange.

2005 Domaine Carneros, Le Rêve Blanc de Blanc, $98 – On the expensive side, but if your gathering is small or if you want to bring a special bottle to your host, this is a beautiful wine. I first tasted this wine with winemaker Eileen Crane and was blown away byy its focus, structure, elegance and purity. Wonderful steeliness and tension on the palate. Still quite young, so even better if you can get your hands on an older vintage.

2007 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, North Coast, California, $36 – “White from white” – made 100% from Chardonnay grapes, this sparkling wine is beautifully dry, crisp, vibrant and elegant with persistent tiny bubbles. For the past two years, we have enjoyed the 2004 and 2006. This 2007 is still quite young but shows delicious orchard and citrus fruit as well as subtle notes of freshly baked bread and biscuits. It has wonderful racy acidity and very lively mousse.

White Wines
2009 Patz and Hall Hyde Vineyard, Chardonnay, $45 – Very focused, minerally nose with notes of apple, pear, citrus, spice and vanilla. Taut and racy on the palate. Wondeful structure. Lively, refreshing, great flavor intensity and very long finish. The minerality is striking.

2009 Buty, White Bordeuax Blend, Columbia Valley, Washington, $25 – A Bordeaux style blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Muscadelle, This is a very elegant, refined wine, with ample bright, pure fruit flavors with subtle layers of spice and vanilla. Long finish

2007 Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington, $13 – Attractive citrusy nose, lemon, lime with notes ofa pricot, green apple and apple blossoms. Slightly off-dry, it is crisp and refreshing with lots of juicy fruit flavor. Easy drinking and a perfect pleaser for Thanksgiving.

2010 Ravines Cellars Dry Riesling, Fingerlakes, New York, $14 – I am only recently really exploring Riesling from the Fingerlakes. This wine has wonderful acidity. It defines the wine. Racy with lots of minerality showing, lively citrus fruit, hints of apricot and white peach and a wonderful spicy note that prevails across the palate.

2010 Markham Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, $15 – I often fing California Sauvignon Blanc wines a little heavy but this one is so juicy, and refreshing. It combines lively, zesty citrus and grassy aromas and flavors with a lovely tropical richness. A great versatile wine for the Thanksgiving table.

2010 Sokol Blosser Pinot Gris Willamette Valley, Oregon, $18 – Inviting fruity, spicy nose with layers of stone fruit, Asian spices, hints of honey and flowers. Juicy with great flavor intensity. Nice minerality, refreshing, rich texture and a smooth long finish with a spicy kick on the end.

Red Wines
2010 Dashe “Les Enfants Terrible” Grenache, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, $24 – I was really struck by this wine when I first tasted it. Juicy, refreshing, lively, pure were the first words I wrote down. Packed with vibrant red fruit flavors, spice, hints of toast and vanilla and a wonderful savory earthiness.

2007 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant, Santa Cruz (Central Coast), California, $35 – I have probably mentioned this wine before. It is a firm favorite and fixture in our house for special occasions. What I particularly love about this wine (and indeed about so many of the Bonny Doon wines) is how they combine new world bright fruit flavor and old world savoriness and minerality. Very attractive aromas and flavors showing ripe black fruit, notes of roasted meat, clove, savory spice. Smooth, structuring tannins and a long finish.

2009 Bella Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, $40 – Dry Creek Valley is renowned for its ZIn wines. Delicious, inviting aromas of bright bramble fruit, black plums and wild cherries, with delicate hints of sweet spice, leather, and clove. Full-bodied yet not muscular. Focused with subtle elegance. Very long finish.

2009 Qupé Syrah, Central Coast, California, $17 – Another firm favorite in our house and great value. Great flavor intensity, well structured, supple tannins and vibrant. Lots of blackberry, black plum fruit, notes of smoke, game, clove and spice. Smooth texture and a nice long finish.

I would love to hear from you, our readers, on what wines you are planning for Thanksgiving.

Until next week enjoy!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)