The charm, and the challenge, of the typical Thanksgiving spread is all those diverse flavors: gooey candied yams, tangy-sweet cranberry jelly, spicy stuffing, meaty bird and more. How do you handle it, wine-wise? Easy! Put both a white and a red on the table, so guests can try both, and help themselves to whichever they prefer. I’ve tried just about every possible wine style with Thanksgiving fare and time and again, I go back to the Gewurztraminer grape for white, and the Zinfandel grape for red. Both have a sweet-savory spiciness that stands up to the assertive tastes on the table, without taking over. And there are plenty of affordable versions available so if your gathering is large, you can please your pocketbook and the crowd.
Here are some of my favorites, both steal and splurge:
Dessert wines for pumpkin and apple pies
- Hogue Gewurztraminer, Washington 2004 ($12) – The gingery-lychee fruit scent and flavor are especially tasty with yams and sausage-laced stuffings.
- Trimbach Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France 2003 ($24) – A subtler version, with mineral, rose petal and apricot scents.
- Fetzer Valley Oaks Zinfandel, California 2004 ($12) – A truly Zin-y Zinfandel, meaning lots of huckleberry fruit and a touch of savory spice that’s super with herbal stuffings.
- Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma 2003 ($35) – The Belloni single vineyard contains some of the county’s oldest Zin vines. The chocolatey-fig flavors and scents are rich, and the finish is endless.
Don’t forget dessert (wine)! The holidays are a perfect time to experiment with dessert wines. They’ll likely be a new taste sensation for a lot of your guests, and there couldn’t be an easier or tastier holiday tradition to introduce. The reason is that many of the dessert wines that pair best with traditional Thanksgiving pies are also affordable, the stopper closure is easy to open, and the wine keeps well if you don’t finish it all. In fact whether it’s Portuguese tawny Port and Madeira or Spanish Pedro Ximenez sherry, you can confidently keep and serve them for weeks after opening. That’s because they are all fortified wines, meaning extra alcohol is added during fermentation to stop the fermentation while the wine is still sweet. The extra alcohol helps preserve the wine.
Here are some great ones to look for:
The ultimate wine flight for a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner
- Delaforce Curious & Ancient Tawny Port, Portugal NV $25 – The name alone makes it a conversation-starter. The toasted nuts and toffee scents and flavors are especially tasty with mincemeat or pecan pie.
- Blandy’s 10 Year Old Malmsey Madeira, Portugal NV ($30) – One of my favorite dessert wines! The tangy-sweet scents and flavors of burnt orange and cinnamon are at once lively and lush. Fantastic with pumpkin pie and chocolate desserts.
- Argueso Pedro Ximenez Sherry, Spain NV ($28) – Dark as molasses, and rich with syrupy raisin and fig flavors and a cinnamon finish. Wonderful with apple pie.
At my house, Thanksgiving is a great excuse to put together a feast where the wine is the star. We tweak the classic flavors a bit to optimize their wine affinity, and then open the best bottles we can muster. Here is my idea of the ultimate Thanksgiving wine dinner menu: As guests gather, oysters on the half shell paired with a blanc de blancs bubbly make a lively and festive beginning. With a first course salad of shaved fennel, toasted walnuts, dried cranberries and goat cheese you get your cranberry fix, and a fantastic match for an Alsace Gewurztraminer. A soup course of sweet potato bisque with truffle oil, paired with a barrel fermented Chardonnay, is a nod to the yam tradition, without the hard-to-pair sticky-sweetness of candied yams. For your roasted bird with earthy sides like Brussels sprouts or turnips, a smoky-earthy Pinot Noir pairs beautifully with the meaty bird and earthy veggies. And for dessert, I like to end refreshingly with a lively and light in alcohol Moscato d’Asti from Italy. That’s lots of flavor to be thankful for!
- Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs Brut NV Champagne, France ($50) – One of my favorite blanc de blancs (meaning made from 100% Chardonnay grapes) on the market. It’s complex, yet delicate and racy like a squeeze of lemon for your oysters.
- Leon Beyer Gewurztraminer, Alsace 2003 ($18) – The gingery-pear flavor compliments the sweet tang of cranberries, the toastiness of nuts and the licorice-like flavor of fennel.
- Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Chalk Hill, Sonoma 2003 ($38) – I go with the lush tropical fruit of this new world Chardonnay to compliment the richness of the sweet potatoes, plus there’s plenty of toasty oak which has gorgeous affinity with the truffle oil.
- Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Champans, Burgundy 1997 ($65) – To us, Thanksgiving’s special enough to break out a great Burgundy with some bottle age. The most affordable strategy is to choose a great producer such as this one, in a slightly lesser vintage, which doesn’t means the wines are bad, just ready to drink sooner. The subtlety of the roasted bird is the perfect thing to set off the wood smoke, truffles, leather and dried cherry character of this wine.
- Rivetti Moscato d’Asti La Spinetta, Italy 2004 ($18) – The refreshing apricot-honeysuckle flavor of this wine are perfect for pumpkin and apple pie!
One of the country's leading wine educators, Andrea Robinson is one of only 14 women in the world who have been appointed Master Sommelier by the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. She was the first woman ever chosen Best Sommelier in the United States by the Sommelier Society of America. Andrea also became the first appointed Dean of Wine Studies for the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where she graduated with honors from its renowned 600-hour professional culinary program.