Thanksgiving Wines: Simple, On Budget, and American

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner, again. Many have struggled through 2009 this year with little to celebrate. Thanksgiving is about celebrating what is really important: being together with family. Whether your gathering is big or small here are some tips for a stress-free (and budget-friendly) wine selection.

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Already The Kitchn is full of great Thanksgiving food ideas. Reading through these posts, I started to ponder the choice of wines. From experience I know this can be a daunting task, given the variety of flavors that prevail on the Thanksgiving table. Add to that the likes and dislikes of different family members, and it is little wonder that anxiety sets in.

My first piece of advice each year is to relax and enjoy the wine buying experience. Keep your choices simple, don’t buy too many wines, and don’t try to find a perfect pairing for each and every dish you are serving.

Here are a few guidelines that I posted last year. They are still as valid in 2009.

3 Key Tips for Choosing Thanksgiving Wine

  • 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. Again, this could be the occasion to try that bag-in-box wine.

Sparkling wine is always a great way to start the celebrations. Champagne is always a winner, but there are many less expensive options to choose from as well. Staying close to the Champagne style, you might opt for a good Traditional Method Californian sparkling wine. Alternatively, Cava from Spain, or a Prosecco from Italy are delightful, and less expensive options.

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White wines that have good acidity, bright fruit and not overly oaked 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. While Chardonnay has long enjoyed a prime place at the Thanksgiving table, be adventurous and try some alternative whites such as:

  • Albariño – aromatic, with crisp acidity, fruit, versatility across the meal
  • Pinot Grigio – both the lighter fruity ‘Pinot Grigio’ style as well as the more full bodied and textured ‘Pinot Gris’ style
  • Riesling – aromatic variety. The breadth of dry, off-dry and sweet styles makes Riesling a natural choice for Thanksgiving
  • Gewürztraminer – Intensely aromatic and often a hard wine to place, but is perfect for the stuffing, cranberry sauce, chutneys and spicy sides
  • Unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay– can carry you right through from drinks to the turkey.
  • Verdelho – Aromatic, crisp but broader than a Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Assyrtiko – Try something different. From Santorini, Assyrtiko wines, with all that acidity and minerality is a great choice, especially if some guests want to stick with white throughout the meal.
  • Marsanne/Rousanne white blends – The spicy herbal notes of the Rousanne along with the richness of Marsanne make for fairly full-bodied wines, that will work well with the turkey, as well as spicy sides.

For reds, go for wines that are refreshing, fruity and not too tannic. It is no secret that Pinot Noir has long been the preferred partner for Turkey. Alternatives might include

  • Gamay – fresh, light and fruity. Light enough for appetizers and yet can carry through the main course
  • Zinfandel – great brambly-berry fruit, and lowish tannin, that will enhance any Turkey and all its trimmings
  • Syrah – similar dark red and black fruit and notes will enhance any meat course
  • Grenache or GSM blends – Bright red fruits and spicy flavors. Some are oaked and quite powerful. But many are not, retaining a pure fruit vibrancy. In the US mainly from Paso Robles or Central Coast.

Mary’s Personal Picks

So, what are we considering this Thanksgiving? We have my husband’s favorite aunt ‘Auntie Joanie’ arriving from Toronto, as well as another Canadian couple and their two children. So our gathering won’t be huge — five grown-ups and three children. As usual for Thanksgiving, I plan to stick to American wines, on this very American holiday. Also, when we have non-Americans as guests, I try to show them the quality, diversity and individuality of wines produced in this country. I have not finalized our exact choices yet, but here is what I am considering:

Thanksgiving 2009 – Our wine selections

Sparkling Wines

2004 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs $23 – “White from white” – made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this sparkling wine is beautifully dry and vibrant with refreshing persistant tiny bubbles. Attractive biscuity, toasty notes. I recommended this last year, but it is really one of my favorites Californian sparkling wines. Plus, the extra year of bottle age has allowed the wine to develop more complexity.

• • NV Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) $18 – I think this sparkler represents excellent value. Roederer Estate is owned by the renowned Champagne house Louis Roederer. A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it has a lively mousse and attractive fruit character with lovely epicurean notes and a long finish. Another firm favorite in our house.

Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Brut, 2005, $20 – Quite broad and full, being about 2/3 Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay. Creamy, smooth mousse and pretty lively bubbles. Fresh brioche, lady finger, and ripe red berry aromas and flavors.

White wines

2008 Seven Hills Pinot Gris, Oregon, $16 – Enticing aromas of pear, grapefruit and tangerine, with hints of tarragon. Very lively on the palate, refreshing with ripe fruit flavors of quince, pear, apple and orange citrus. Lingering finish. Has about 10% oak treatment but beautifully integrated

2008 Clos La Chance Hummingbird Series, Glittering throated emerald unoaked Chardonnay, Monterey County, $15 –Peach flesh and skin, ruby grapefruit, bright fruit, refreshing, medium bodied with hints of guava on the nose and hints of spice on the palate – medium plus length.

2008 Seven Hills Columbia Valley Viognier. $15 – Fairly full-bodied, but lively and refreshing. Attractive aromas of acacia honey, spice and white blossoms with flavors of nectarine, apricot and citrus. Nice creamy texture and good length with a hint of spicy vanilla on the finish.

2007 Bouchaine Estate Chardonnay, Carneros $30 – Ripe stone and tropical fruit, grapefruit, apricot and melon, intertwined with notes of vanilla, cream and butterscotch. Full-bodied and oaked yet refreshing with persistent flavors.

2007 Qupé Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley, California $18 – Mainly Marsanne, with about 12% Rousanne. I recommended the 2006 last year. The 2007 is also gorgeous, but more minerally, with brighter acidity and a little more taut (a cooler vintage). Inviting floral nose with aromas of quince, pear and just ripe apricot. Nice notes of dried herbs on the finish.

You might also like to refer back to my post on Long Island wines in October for additional white wine recommendations

Red Wines

2006 Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley $20 – A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Syrah and described by the winemaker as a ‘Cabernet + Syrah explosion to ignite your palate’! This is a pretty powerful, bold wine. Attractive nose of ripe black fruit, with lifted blue flower notes, pepper and earthy notes. Lots of ripe vibrant fruit and tannin on the palate. Good structure. Long length with a persistent warm, toasty finish. This will stand up to the strong side dishes, chutneys and rich sauces. Excellent value.

2007 Edge Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $20 – A blend of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot. Edge is juicy, plummy and smooth and soft ripe tannins. A mix of ripe red and black fruit with notes of vanilla, nutmeg and clove.

2007 Bouchaine Pinot Noir, Carneros $30 – Packed with vibrant red fruit, pomegranate, red cherries, plums layered with toasty oak nuances of coffee, smoke, and spice. Smooth and elegant across the palate and a long lingering finish.

2006 Nalle, Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, $27 – Primarily Zinfandel with small amounts of Carignane, Alicante Bouche and Petit Sirah in the blend. One of my favorite Zins because it is more on the restrained side with very reasonable alcohol level (13.9%). Lots of bright, ripe berry fruit, juicy tannins and well integrated oak, with nuances of cedar, spice, clove and vanilla adding complexity.

2007 Seven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington State, $22 – Merlot can often disappoint, this one certainly does not. Quite the opposite. While packed with warm ripe plummy fruit, it is vibrant and fresh, begging another sip. Red fruit mingles with coffee, spice, butterscotch and hints of wild flower. Smooth, long finish.

2006 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Signature, Napa Valley $42 – Assertive herb, anise, blackberry and wild berry fruit is tight, firm, tannic and well-structured, picking up depth and length on the finish. Best from 2010 through 2016.

2007 Patricia Green Estate Pinot Noir, Oregon, $36 – Since I first visited the winery a number of years ago and spent a morning talking to ‘Patty’ I have been a firm fan of the wines. Inviting aromas of violets, blackberries and cherry. Quite dense on the palate with firm ripe tannins. Vibrant black and red fruit with some tar, earth and espresso notes.

2008 Evening Land Gamay Noir Celebration, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon $20 – Evening Land is a new wine venture, making high-end wines. However, this Gamay, which I recommended the 2007 vintage last year and have had a number of times this year is reasonably priced. The 2008 is even better, delicious, refreshing, very soft tannins and easy to drink. Great purity of bright red fruit, strawberry, red cherry and raspberry.

As with the whites, you might also like to look back at our red wine recommendations from Long Island.

Dessert Wines

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For dessert, there are also lots of choices. Having read Faith’s post on decadent Thanksgiving desserts, I am thinking of

Essencia Orange Muscat, California, $23 – From 100% Orange Muscat grapes. Intense aromas of ripe paricot, peach, orange blossom. My favorite pairing is with traditional trifle, but also great with apple pie, flan, pavlova or open fruit tarts.

Elysium Black Muscat, California – $23 From the same producer as Essencia, Elysium is made from Black Muscat grapes. For me this is what I want with chocolate, Black Forest Gateau, or rich ice-creams. Aromas of all sorts of roses and ripe red berries. Quite luscious.

Rosenblum Désirée Chocolate Dessert Wine (375ml) $15 – made from Zinfandel with some Syrah and Touriga Nacional. This is a fortified wine. Rich, thick, spicy, powerful. Another great pairing for chocolate based desserts.

2007 Pacific Rim “Vin de Glaciere” Riesling (375ml) $17 – made like an ice-wine, where the grapes are frozen to concentrate the sugars. Sweet honeyed pear, apple, papaya, passionfruit with a touch of spice. For lighter fruit based desserts.

This is but a small selection of the possible wines that will work for Thanksgiving. What wines are you planning on serving at your gathering?


Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Faith Durand; wine producers)