In the past I spent many hours in the weeks before Bird Day cooking turkey and various trimmings, and matching them with all types of wines in the hopes of finding magical pairings. After several years of this annual exercise, I've come to a startling conclusion:
It just doesn't matter.
That's right — go ahead and buy any wine you like for Thanksgiving, because chances are, with the wide assortment of dishes typically found on the table for the football day feast, it will match with something.
Wait, that's not what you wanted to hear? You really want some guidance and specific suggestions? No problem, I can do that.
Considering the cornucopia of flavors on the table, my suggestion is to go with a “versatile” wine: one that can match with a variety of foods. Generally, this will be a wine with higher-than-average acidity, very little or no oak, and a flavor profile that is fresh and bright but not jammy nor overwhelming to the palate. As it turns out, wines like this also tend to go well with the typical main course of roast turkey. Now, what wines fit this broad description? I can suggest a few.
One of my favorite “go-to” wines for versatility (and for pleasing many palates) is Chianti. Choose one from any of the sub-zones — Classico, Rufina, Colli Fiorentini, etc. — as they all have the same basic qualities you need for matching multiple dishes. Chianti wines are made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, which provides pleasant food friendly characteristics such as cherry aromas and flavors, ample acidity, and medium tannins. Generally speaking, a “Riserva” will be more expensive and provide more complexity, but you would do just fine with a non-Riserva if it better fits your budget. Here's the part where I shamelessly plug two wines that I represent as a PR flack: Cecchi Chianti Classico and Banfi Chianti Superiore. Yes I'm biased but I also have tasted these wines many times with food and can guarantee their food-friendliness and that they will be perfectly suitable for the holiday bird as well as many of the trimmings — and they are under $15.
Along the same lines, if you have the wherewithal and desire to spend $20 and above, you may want to go with Sangiovese-based wines from outside of the Chianti region: Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or Sangiovese di Romagna. All are appropriate and will provide a bit more structure and intensity in flavor. What brand you choose is up to personal preference; in regard to quality, you will get good value for your dollar if you stay in the $19-30 range.
Another great “go-to” wine for food is Beaujolais — preferably, a Beaujolais Cru. You may be familiar with Beaujolais Nouveau — and I encourage you to try it for fun, if you wish. But for more serious enjoyment (wait, should enjoyment be serious?) you are better off choosing Beaujolais Cru, which will have better structure, a longer finish, and higher levels of those all-important food-matching necessities: acidity and tanning. Many people would also agree that Beaujolais Cru tastes a heckuva lot better than Nouveau — but remember, taste is subjective. What exactly is a “Beaujolais Cru”? On the label, it will say “Beaujolais” somewhere, as well as one of these other words: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie, or Saint-Amour. Here's the best part: you should be able to find any of these for less than $20; the brand you're likely to find most easily is also very reliable: Georges Duboeuf (my favorites are the Brouilly and Morgon Jean Descombes). Tip: try to get one from the 2009 vintage, which was outstanding; many experts feel that 2009 Beaujolais Cru is the best value in wine buying right now.
OK, there are two red suggestions, now how about white? Again, I'm going to Italy, where wines are made for food. Pinot Grigio, Soave, Vermentino, and white blends from Tuscany and Sicily are all good choices. Which ones? There are too many to mention, but as a general rule of thumb, you usually get what you pay for — and I suggest you spend a minimum of $12. Specific wines that I know well from the Banfi Vintners portfolio (*cough*, more shameless plugs) include Bolla Soave Classico (yes, Bolla, but make sure it's 2010), Centine Bianco, and Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio (stunning, and the only Pinot Grigio made in Montalcino). Outside Banfi, I highly recommend Planeta La Segreta Bianco, Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino, and Dogajolo Bianco for the Bird Day feast.
Beyond Italy, for whites, you might want to go with a dry Riesling — preferably from Alsace, Germany, Washington state, or Long Island, New York — in that order. Next choice is Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon. Then, Viognier, ideally from the Rhone Valley. Viognier tends to have low acidity but its oily texture and perfumey aroma go nicely with the holiday bird and many stuffing variations. What? No Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc? I could recommend both, but those varietals can vary so wildly depending on the region and the producer that it's hard to include them as a broad suggestion. If it helps, I find Geyser Peak, Wente, Francis Ford Coppola, Simi, Estancia, and Chateau Ste. Michelle to be reliable, easy to find, and reliable domestic producers of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. I also love anything from Groth, but their wines tend to be more expensive.
Finally, there is rose — which may be the best bet for a Thanksgiving meal. Personally, I like dry rose, and there still should be a few to choose from. Generally, you want to buy a rose that is as young and fresh as possible; in other words, you'll want a 2010. The “you get what you pay for” rule works here too. The best come from southern France, but there are very good ones from all over the world — ask the store merchant for a recommendation.
Hey, what happened to Zinfandel? Doesn't everyone suggest a Zin, since it is indigenous to the USA? In the past, I have, but these days I can't, because most Zins I see on the retail shelves are hot (high in alcohol), fat (low in acidity), and have flavor profiles that tend toward jammy, artificially oaky, and slightly sweet. In short, not food friendly. If you like Zin, however, don't let me stop you — because this is my personal, subjective opinion that means little to anyone but myself. Furthermore, as stated earlier: it doesn't matter; likely, there's something at the table that will taste great with a modern-day Zin.
I've made enough suggestions, so now let's hear from you — what wines do you suggest for Thanksgiving, and why?