[Photo: Angelique and the family for a Thanksgiving—with or without the perfect wine / Credit: Angelique Vinther]

It’s that time of year again… For me, being the only one in my circle of family and friends who’s interested in wine, it means I’ll end up fielding dozens of calls and emails asking for advice on what wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. Normally I love giving suggestions for wine and food pairing, but Thanksgiving is just a nightmare. 

First, everything is served at once and there are just too many dishes with divergent flavors to all agree with any single wine. It’s like asking what wine to pair with a cruise ship’s midnight buffet. And then there are the varying recipes for each dish depending on your family’s preparation. From the cranberry sauce to the green bean casserole to the turkey itself, every family has their own recipes and they don’t taste the same as the neighbors’. 

In previous years, I’ve tried to take these inquiries seriously. But the simple truth is that most of the people who ask don’t have the palettes to tell the difference anyway. Sure, they may know enough not to buy their wine by the gallon, but they aren’t going to notice that the heavy gravy is muting the Beaujolais or that the Riesling is too dry for the sweet potato casserole. So, in the season of crowded stores and crazy relatives, it’s really the last thing they need to worry about.

And then there’s my family. They all know I’m “into wine” and bless their hearts for wanting to use this as a way to bond. But if I have to smile and nod my way through one more conversation about how “smooth” some cheap, corner store wine is and, “Do you think it will go well with the turkey?“ I’m going to lose it. There’s definitely something special about wine that makes people who know nothing about it, and generally have no interest in it, suddenly want to get into in-depth discussions about it. Maybe it’s just because I’m writing this the day after the election, but politics is the only other subject I can think of where the same is true.

And when did it become the expectation that there’s one correct or ideal wine to serve with anything?  There are usually LOTS of wines that could go with any given dish. It’s totally dependent on what elements you want to bring out in the dish and what YOU like. So, I thought for this year, instead of just telling you “serve this or that,” I would simply offer up some tips to help guide your wine decisions:

1) If Aunt Doris always brings her over-salted stuffing, be sure not to serve a wine with a strong tannin profile. I’ve seen lots of articles recommending Zinfandels to go with the turkey, but if there’s any dish that’s heavy on the salt (gravy, stuffing, etc), you’ll want to go with a lighter bodied red or play it really safe and serve a white (and one without much oak).

2) Nothing is going to pair well with the kids’ favorite: marshmallow covered yams.  A basic rule to wine and food pairing is that the wine should be sweeter than the food.  So, there’s really no dinner wine that’s going to pair well with jet puffed sugar.  

3) If your in-law’s turkey always turns out dry, make sure to bring a high-acid wine like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or a nice Soave.  The mouth-watering acid in the wine should compensate for the lack of moisture in the bird.

4) When you’re up against a strong flavor like a smoked turkey, you’ll want a pretty robust wine to stand up to it.  In this case I would recommend a Zinfandel or Barolo.  But, of course, this isn’t going to taste so great if you’ve also got salty gravy! (See how hopeless this is?)

For the record, I’ve started taking the easy way out on Thanksgiving pairings. I serve an Anderson Valley Chenin Blanc (off-dry with a good acid profile) and a Beaujolais or Bardolino (light bodied reds with no aggressive tannins). Like any other wine, they have no hope of pairing with every dish on the table, but they’re crowd-pleasing, have a nice acidity, and no one ever complains. Cheers!

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