Whether you're the host, a guest or a restaurant diner, choosing wines for Thanksgiving dinner can be a challenge. After all, the menu can encompass a wide variety of tastes and textures, from mild (white meat turkey) to gamey (dark meat turkey, sausage) to savory (Brussels sprouts with bacon) to sweet (cranberry sauce) to creamy (gravy).
Furthermore, while articles might suggest specific wines, what happens when you can’t find them on a restaurant list or at your local wine shop?
First, take a deep breath.
“The focus of the holiday is on getting together with family and friends, it’s not the time to go all ‘wine geek’,” said wine expert Hank Zona, owner of Swirl Wine Events and host of The Grapes Unwrapped. “That doesn’t mean you have to drink swill, but don’t sweat it.”
Reassured, I joined Zona at Above Restaurant. The chef prepared a gorgeous plate of the roasted bird for us, accompanied by chestnut apple stuffing and cranberry pecan sauce, while the bartender poured us a selection of six wines, each available by the glass on the restaurant’s wine list. But in general, Zona advises not to get too hung up on specific labels on this day.
A few overall tips: first, consider the flavor of the whole dish rather than going crazy parsing individual ingredients. Also, while it might sound obvious, take into account your guests’ preferences. If your family hates white, there’s no point in serving it.
We kicked off the tasting with something bubbly. “My number one pick with food is always a sparkling wine,” said Zona. “It’s fun and festive but also practical and versatile.” The Gloria Ferrer Brut sparkling wine we sampled – lively and acidic with a hint of green apple — helped cut through the heft of the food.
A less orthodox choice was a glass of Magner’s Hard Cider. “Hard cider is somewhere in between a beer and a wine, so I often recommend it with a complex meal like this,” said Zona. “It’s a good palate-scrubber.” With its dry effervescence, the cider was a pleasant surprise.
Palates scrubbed, we tried a Relax Riesling. Although this one was a tad sweet for me, dry Rieslings in general tend to have a well-balanced sweetness that marries well with some of the smokier and spicier holiday dishes.
Sauvignon Blanc is always a good choice, but Zona tends to avoid Pinot Grigio (“too light”) and Chardonnay (“can be too oaky”).
As the tryptophan kicked in, I asked my host to solve a thorny etiquette issue: when a guest brings a bottle of wine, is the host obligated to serve it? “I would ask them if they would like me to open it or hold onto it.”
We moved on to reds. The classic Thanksgiving match is Pinot Noir, and the Trinity Oak Pinot Noir was excellent with the turkey. "But it can be hard to find good ones for under $20 a bottle in a shop,” said Zona. He is partial to one made by Gloria Ferrer.
A Terra Doro Zinfandel had a wonderful mouthfeel and a nice finish that zipped up my tongue. It’s a great value, too. Syrah and Merlot are other good choices.
For a vegetarian Thanksgiving meal, Zona is a huge fan of Gruner Veltliner. “Nothing goes better with vegetables.”
Although we didn’t have time for dessert, he recommended a Moscato or Muscat for apple pie and a nice port or sherry for pumpkin pie. "Lots of places have port by the glass,” he said. Hard cider is a nice accompaniment for a cheese course.
I asked Mario LaVecchia, Above’s general manager (and Robert’s dad) for his favorite holiday varietals. "I drink my own homemade wine,” said LaVecchia — a response that met with Zona’s hearty approval.
“In the end,” said Zona, “even if your pairings aren’t perfect, be thankful that you’re still eating better food and drinking better wine than most folks in the world.”
This article originally ran in November, 2011.