Wine For Thanksgiving

Here's the deal: A boatload of friends, relatives and strangers are coming over for a simple meal of roasted turkey with all the trimmings: stuffing, squash soup, cranberry sauce, candied yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, Brussells sprouts, tossed salad, biscuits, a cheese course,  a pumpkin or pecan pie, and ice cream.  Oh, and before the meal,  there's nuts, Chex party mix, onion dip, and other 'appetizers.'

Yikes! Which wine or wines should you serve? How much wine should you buy? Red, white, sparkling, rosé or all of the above?

The answer is simple: turkey goes amazingly well with many red, white, rosé and sparkling wines. The key is to choose wines that will complement the meal, and which won't overwhelm the already hearty and disparate flavors of the day.

Look for higher acid, lower alcohol wines that are dry to off-dry, and avoid big, tannic, or overly oaked wines.

Steer toward Austria, France, Oregon, Washington, Germany, Italy and Spain.  Avoid extracted California wines. 

The best white wine matches are refreshing, tangy, fruity, medium-weight wines.

Experiment a bit — think Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer from California or France, a Soave, Pinot Bianco or Arneis from Italy, Torrontés from Argentina, Riesling from France, Austria, Germany or Australia, and Alsatian-style Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer. Some Sauvignon Blancs might work (think Sancerre), as will unoaked or very lightly oaked Chardonnays (Chablis, Mâcon or other white Burgundies).

But stay away from oaky, buttery chards. While they'll probably work with the turkey and buttery mashed potatoes, oak has a tendency to clash and dominate almost everything else on the plate. Also, avoid wines that are too light in stature (Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Grigio, Vernaccia, et cetera), as they tend to disappear behind the heavy flavors and textures of a hearty meal.

Rosé wine is almost the perfect match for Thanksgiving - it offers the flavors of a red wine, with the nimble-footed nature of a white.  Rosés are a perfect match with turkey – their bracing, mouth watering acidity match perfectly with white meat turkey, play off roasted flavors of crackly skin and blend in with the heavier dark meat flavors. Choose any dry rosé wine you can find.

Even the dreaded white Zinfandel works well with turkey and all the trimmings.

Red wine with poultry? Why not! For my money, the best reds that match with turkey are Cru Beaujolais, Cabernet Francs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots,  Pinot Noir, German, Italian and Loire Reds, and lighter, higher-acid Zinfandels.

Cru Beaujolais is a no-brainer match for Thanksgiving: fresh, fruity, lively— can there be a better way to celebrate than with this Gamay-based charmer?

The cherry/berry fruits of Pinot Noir match nicely to game and to cranberry, and the soft, lush tannins of a Cabernet Franc go well with big, roasty flavors. Low-alcohol style Cabernet Sauvignon (like Bordeaux); spicy, peppery Grenache or Syrah-based blends (from the Rhône Valley or Spain); lighter , old school Zinfandels, or a Tempranillo will also pair quite nicely with your Thanksgiving feast. Higher acid Italian reds like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Lagrein also work quite well.

Don't be afraid to experiment.

But avoid choosing big Cabernets, Syrahs or new school Zinfandels. They're too tannic and too high in alcohol to match well with turkey, and the sugars in the food will make the tannins in cabs taste bitter. Save those big boys for beef or pork.

Pairing a sparkling wine with the Thanksgiving meal works very well. The creaminess of a Brut Champagne, the tingly sweetness of an Italian spumante or prosecco, or the red fruity character of a dry Lambrusco, or rosé sparkler can all take the place of a still wine at your table. This might be an option you want to consider.

Are you serving ham or prime rib in addition to turkey? Mamma Mia! Don't panic, here are a few wine suggestions:

A glazed ham is both salty and sweet, so fresh white wines with good acidity, some residual sugar and a dry finish work best. Look for trocken (or dry) Riesling, Gewürztraminer or an Alsatian Pinot Gris. Rosés, Beaujolais and Pinots will also work well.

Typically, beef demands big Cabernets, Syrahs and Zins — wines packed with fruit, oak, tannins and sugars. But if you're serving beef along with the turkey, those wines will dominate our fine once-feathered friend (and everything else on the table). So, look for Rhone-style blends of Grenache or Syrah, a soft Cab or Merlot, or even a nice Mourvedre, with smokey and chocolately overtones that will match with both the prime rib and the big bird.

Finally, here's a few Thanksgiving wine rules to remember:

* Don't match heavy wines with a heavy meal. Go for lighter, mid-weight, fruitier wines without overwhelming oak or tannic components.

* With the myriad flavors at the average Thanksgiving table, there's not one single wine that will pair perfectly with every flavor on the table, so don't stress. Pour several different varietals so you and your guests can match them with the varied flavors and textures on your table. If your budget permits, have a sparkling wine, a white, a rosé and a red.

* Serve sparkling wine before the meal and dessert wine with the last course.

* How much wine to buy? Assume three to four glasses of wine per adult, and five glasses per bottle. Multiply the number of guests by three or four and divide by five to arrive at the number of bottles you will need. (The New York Times says to assume one bottle per adult, and that seems just about right to me).

* Assume two three-ounce pours of sparkling wine and one two-ounce pour of dessert wine per adult. Dessert wines should always be as sweet as or sweeter than the desserts that they accompany.

*Relax, and try to have fun at this often stressful event. Remember, you're among friends.

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