Ah, yes. You have that fifteen year-old bottle of Barolo, or a First Growth Bordeaux, or an Oregon Pinot Noir that got a perfect score from Robert Parker, and you are thing that a festive occasion like Thanksgiving is the perfect time to open it. DON’T!
The problem is that Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on family togetherness and a mixture of foods, plus the fact that most of the people at your table will not be wine aficionados, means that Thanksgiving is perhaps the worst possible time to open a bottle that you want to show off.
Setting aside the guests, let’s look at the menu. Turkey, by itself, is going to go with about anything you serve, although it is unlikely to create a pairing with wine that will be memorable. The real problem comes from the side dishes. One, if your guests are bringing dishes, you have no idea of what will match up with the hodge-podge of food. Two, most Thanksgiving dinners contain dishes that are sweet, and sweetness is the enemy of any good dry wine.
Now, let’s look at your guests. Unless you have a group of people who are all serious wine aficionados, you are going to make most of the people at your table feel uncomfortable if you serve an expensive bottle and they don’t like it. Besides, the center of attention at Thanksgiving should be the love you share with one another.
Does that mean that you are doomed to drink something that you don’t like? Of course not. Here are some of the reliable standards that I have served over the years that solve for the mixture of foods and that avoid the appearance of wine snobbery, starting with whites and rose’s:
Spanish Sparkling Wine, aka Cava (I have a soft spot in my heart for Serra, but that’s only because I used to sell it.) Just be sure not to get Brut, which is too dry for your meal. An Extra Dry (I know, it sounds wrong, but Extra Dry is actually fruitier than Brut) or a Rose’ should go well and will be festive.
Riesling. I lean toward Oregon or Washington Rieslings. Of course, if you live on the Atlantic Coast, there are some great Rieslings, especially the ones from Long Island. If you are feeling like splurging, a German Spätlese would be great.
Gewürztraminer. Half the fun of this wine is saying the name, but it’s my personal favorite for Thanksgiving. “Gewürz” means “spicy’ in German, and it smells like nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and other wonderful stuff, but it tastes similar to Riesling as you drink it. Besides saying the name, it matches well for things like sage-flavored dressing or peppery vegetable dishes.
Rose’. You need to be a little careful here, because there is some really bad rose’ out there. When America went through the White Zinfandel craze years back, the market was flooded with stuff that tasted like bubble gum. In fact, my wife was convinced that she hated rose’, period. Well, we survived that craze, and there are a lot of good rose’s out there. In some ways, this is an ideal wine to serve because it doesn’t make a statement, but it still tastes good. What you are looking for is something that has both fruit and acid in a nice balance. Wines from Washington, Oregon, and the cooler regions of California fit the bill, as well as Tavel, d’Anjou, or Provence from France. Now, here are my favorite Thanksgiving reds:
Beaujolais. The domestic equivalent to Beaujolais is Gamay; remember, good winemakers in the U.S. never steal the names of regions to describe their wines, but use the name of the grape instead. Unfortunately, Beaujolais is sometimes difficult to find, due largely to a scandal that hit the region last decade. But the wines today are wonderful, nice and fruity, perfect for people who think they don’t like red wine. I used to be a big fan of Beaujolais Nouveau which, due to way it is made, is meant to be consumed as quickly as possible after the harvest. I still love it but, unfortunately, it has become a fad wine that is now grossly overpriced.
Barbera. This is sometimes called, “the Italian Beaujolais.” Not a terrible description, but it is a little bit more full-bodied than Beaujolais so it might not be as popular with people who don’t like red wines. Since Barbera is the name of the grape, you can find both Italian and domestic Barberas, and they tend to be good values.
Zinfandel. This can be wonderful with Thanksgiving dinner, but be careful! There are some hefty Zinfandels out there that will overpower the food. If the wine label states that it is an Old Vine Zinfandel and/or it contains more than 14.5% alcohol, save it for a wine tasting. But if the wine is around 12.5% alcohol, what you will get is a wine that smells like blackberries and even tastes like a variety of berries. Back in the bad old days, people would ask me, “is there such thing as a red Zinfandel?” Yes, there is, and that’s what you should be drinking instead of the plonk that was popular twenty years ago.