Choosing wines for Thanksgiving is easier than you think


File photo. File photo.

Nothing makes a wine columnist feel the freakishly swift passage of days more than the realization that it’s Thanksgiving wine recommendation time yet again. Every year, I consider taking a different approach—or even skipping it entirely, hoping that no one will notice the omission of what’s become an annual expectation. (Especially tempting after our beer columnist, Hunter Smith, proffered some mighty fine beer suggestions last week.)

It’s not that I don’t enjoy Thanksgiving as much as the next starch-loving, gluttony-welcoming American; it’s just that with a meal that’s such a patchwork of flavors, there is absolutely no right wine answer. And what’s the point of having a pulpit if I can’t be right?

I jest, of course, because there’s plenty of merit in debating the reds and whites of the matter. After all, having drinkable wine on your turkey table benefits everyone. It ought not cause undue stress though. Just follow these few basic guidelines, buy what you like (and plenty of it), and you’re in store for a happy, happy holiday.

Part of the utter joy (and oddity) of Thanksgiving is that, unless you are the host, you’re in for an entire day with absolutely nothing to do except yell at the television, brainstorm at least one thing you are thankful for in case you get called on at the table, and consume inhumane quantities of food and drink. Since pre-feast nibbles tend to be fatty and salty (as most good appetizers are), you’ll want to start with a drink that’s thirst-quenching, not palate-fatiguing. Think of lithe, zippy little numbers with bubbles and/or high acid and low alcohol. Our area’s artisanal ciders offer all three qualities and pair beautifully with everything from a cheddar cheese nut ball to bacon-wrapped anything.

Wines for the table should be easy and ambidextrous. Most families have at least one trashy dish at their spread that they’re mildly embarrassed by, yet would be loathe to ever give up. Whether it’s the sweet potato casserole covered in marshmallows, or the mushroom soup-canned green bean casserole, it’s part of what makes Thanksgiving so loveable. This same kind of open-armed, free-for-all acceptance should apply to the wines too. Set a smattering of reasonably-priced bottles in white and red on the buffet table and let guests help themselves. Since the meal is traditionally served as one giant feedbag—I mean, course—there’s no need to pour in courses either.

For whites, stick with young, bright wines with plenty of acidity, aromatics, and, if not a touch of residual sugar, at least lots of mid-palate fruit. Austerely dry or overtly oaked wines become positively punishing with cranberry sauce and downright dehydrating with sausage-studded stuffing. Best bets include Albariño, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Petit Manseng, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Viognier, all of which have the body to stand up to the big bird himself, but also the acidity to cut through those butter-laden mashed taters.

Versatile choices for reds include lighter-bodied, fruit-focused reds with invigorating acidity. Barbera, Dolcetto, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Frappato, Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, and Zweigelt will all wash down that lumpy gravy and have you reaching for more. Tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are best saved for steak night.

Thanksgiving isn’t the time to bust out your cellar’s treasures either. The funk and evolving complexity of age-worthy wines require more serious food (and drinkers) to be fully appreciated. You don’t want to pull out a 2001 Puligny-Montrachet just to have your Aunt Velma make a goblet-sized white wine spritzer out of it.

Save any polarizing wines (Pinotage and Norton come to mind) for another occasion. You’re bound to get enough vehemence with the in-laws and “that guy” who always brings up politics at the table.

Finally, since the drinking starts early—sometimes once the whites of Al Roker’s eyes appear on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—steer clear of any wines above 14 percent ABVs unless you want a man down in the pumpkin pie. Zinfandel, a favorite Thanksgiving recommendation among retailers and wine writers because of its all-American heritage, often clocks in at 15-16 percent alcohol. Those almost port-like proportions are more likely to put you under the table than at it. Save the high-octane stuff for dessert, when you can sober everyone up with coffee or a swift kick out the door.

So you see that while there’s no one answer to what to pull the cork on this Thursday, there’s more than a caseful of solutions, all of which should make you very, very thankful.

Foggy Ridge Serious Cider, Feast!, $18
Patrick Janvier’s Jasnières Cuvée Silex 2010, Tastings of Charlottesville, $28.95
G.D. Vajra Langhe Rosso 2009, Wine Warehouse, $15.99
Broadbent Madeira, Market Street Wineshop, $16.99