For many families, Thanksgiving dinner is the premiere celebration meal of the year. In the U. S. A., it almost invariably involves roasting a whole turkey and serving it with very specific accompaniments: mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole. Former generations added molded salads to the menu. This is the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Wine was an afterthought, not appearing on many Thanksgiving tables in America until the latter part of the last century.
Which wines to choose for this varied feast has always presented thorny problems. Dry or off-dry? Red or white? Can one wine really partner up with this varied menu?
Traditional wisdom answers no to this question. The most common advice is to leave off the cranberry sauce, which will cast any marriage of meat and wine asunder. But we’re still left with the issue of dark meat vs. light meat.
If you were serving turkey breast, you would certainly choose a light to medium bodied dry white wine, such as Roussanne or Pinot Grigio. These varietals pair perfectly with the mild meaty flavors of turkey breast.
Dark meat is another matter. Light white wines simply don’t stand up to the richer flavors of turkey legs and thighs. A medium bodied red is required, such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, or California Grenache – which brings another suggestion to mind. More on that later.
A few years ago there was a movement to declare Zinfandel as the archetypical Thanksgiving wine, because it is the only specifically American varietal (We’ll overlook its European origins for now). What could be more patriotic than the archetypical American bird and the archetypical American wine?
But Zinfandel poses many pairing problems. First, it’s very difficult to find a Zinfandel that is medium bodied and dry enough. Most are fruit monsters with alcohol levels approaching (if not exceeding) 16%. They pair with strong cheeses and chocolate, not with turkey, unless you cover it with cranberry sauce; then, it just might work!
Our solution? We acquiesce to the thought that nothing really works across the board for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. We prefer serving at least two wines.
- Unoaked Chardonnay
- Dry Chenin Blanc
- Pinot Grigio
- Dry Riesling
- California Grenache
- Pinot Noir
- Sangiovese (including Chianti)
- Tempranillo (including Rioja)
Another alternative: rosé. The new crop of varietal or varietal blend rosé wines lends itself very well as a single compromise wine that accompanies the wide spectrum of foods present at the Thanksgiving table.