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Thanksgiving Wines – Six Pairing Strategies

November 20, 2016

Thanksgiving! It’s the one day of the year when wine is most likely to appear on American dinner tables. Selecting which wines will best complement your menu and appeal to your guests with individual taste preferences is always a bit challenging.


Turkey is one of the most versatile of meats when it comes to wine. The white meat is light enough to handle white wines, yet flavorful enough to handle lighter more delicate reds. The dark meat can stand up to bold reds. The devil, as they say, is in the details. In this case, wine pairings are complicated by delicious side dishes, type of stuffing or dressing, the gravy and all the trimmings that make Thanksgiving family traditions unique.

So rather than just recommend a few specific wines, we’ve compiled several strategies to follow in planning your holiday wine pairings. Check out the T-U-R-K-E-Y strategies below. One or the other may fit your situation, budget and guests’ taste preferences. As always, you’ll know if it’s a successful pairing when the wine makes the food taste better and the food makes the wine taste better.

Six T-U-R-K-E-Y Wine Pairing Strategies

Sparkling rose toast

T – Toast with Bubbles

Champagne or sparkling wine pairs remarkably well with Thanksgiving dishes from turkey to cranberry sauce to stuffing, so it can be enjoyed throughout the meal. Brut is the driest of sparkling wine classifications with no perceptible sweetness. Rosé-style sparkling wines are slightly sweeter and also good choices. Our top pink sparkling wine choice would be a dry sparkling Shiraz. Prosecco is also a good budget choice and somewhat sweeter than other sparkling wines.

Whatever your choice, you can serve sparkling wine throughout dinner. It will morph with your entire menu to produce a spectacular pairing. Be sure to have plenty on hand and make sure to serve it thoroughly chilled.

Variety of wines

U – Unique Wine with Each Course

If you’re planning for a party of six to eight guests, you could open a different wine for each course. You might begin with a toast and a celebratory glass of sparkling wine, like Prosecco. and then move to still wines. Generally speaking, the progression of wines throughout the meal will be from white to red, from lighter-bodied to full-bodied, from dry to sweet (i.e. dessert wines).

An interesting choice at this time of year is the new Beaujolais Nouveau from France, which is released every year on November 15. Fruity and flavorful, Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be consumed right away. It does not age well and is just perfectly timed for this holiday feast. Trader Joes and most big and small wine shops will carry Beaujolais Nouveau at a very modest price.

As for which wines to serve with which course, there are no rules. You want to be sure the wine and the dish don’t fight each other with one overpowering the other. Here are a few tried and true pairing ideas:

  • Wine Pairings with Turkey and Dressing: Cabernet Franc, White Burgundy/Bordeaux Blanc/Pouilly Fuisse, Chardonnay with low or no oak,a dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais Grand Cru, Beaujolais Nouveau, Merlot, Pinot Noir or a fruity Zinfandel.
  • Wine Pairings with Light Side Dishes (like green beans): For something different and delicious, try Albariño or Grüner Veltliner.
  • Wine Pairings with Cranberry Sauce:  Prosecco or a fresh-tasting Dry Rosé, both of which pair with the tart and tangy cranberry sauce.

Red & White Wine Glasses

R – Red & White

A good and simple strategy for Thanksgiving wine is to select a very good white and a very good red, offering your guests their choice.

For reds, look for soft tannins that will yield to and blend with your dishes, like Pinot Noir, Syrah, a fruity Zinfandel, Merlot, Beaujolais Nouveaux or a (more expensive) Beaujolais Grand Cru will delight most red wine lovers without overpowering lighter turkey flavors.

For a white wine, look for a wine with well-balanced acidity. Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, an unoaked or low-oak Chardonnay, or Viognier are all good choices for those who prefer traditional white wines. Non-traditional white wines that will work nicely are Albariño and Grüner Veltliner.

Guests gathering at wine party

K – Know Your Guests

It’s always fine to serve a wine just because you know your guests love it. New wine drinkers, for instance, often prefer “sweeter” wines. While that may not be your first choice, it is always okay to simply consider what your guests would most enjoy and stick with that, unless it really clashes with your meal. In that case, try selecting wines in a similar style that work with your menu. Then it becomes a good opportunity to introduce your guests to something new but similar to what they’ve always enjoyed.


E – Ending on a Sweet Note

Well, what pairs with traditional thanksgiving desserts like Pumpkin or Pecan Pie? We suggest a glass of sweet Moscato, Port or Sherry (fortified wines like Pedro Ximénez or a Cream Sherry). Any “late harvest” wine will be sweet as well. More expensive sweet wine choices include Sauternes or Hungarian Tokai wines. The basic idea is to choose a wine that is as sweet or sweeter than the dessert itself. Otherwise, even a very good wine will come off as bitter or ‘sour’ by comparison. The exception to the rule seems to be sparkling wine or champagne… which pair beautifully with chocolate and most other sweet desserts.

Variety guests choose their own wine

Y – Your Guests Get to Choose!

This is a sure winner! A dear friend and syndicated wine columnist, Jerry Mead, many years ago explained his favorite Thanksgiving wine strategy, as follows:

There was a time when I too (it was a very long time ago) tried to select a wine each year that I thought most likely to work well for everyone, with everything on the table, at a traditional turkey dinner.

Then I got smart. For at least the past 25 years I have been the hero of every family holiday dinner. You too can be a hero if you follow this sage (no play on words intended) advice.

Give every guest at least two wine glasses (even if you have to buy a little additional stemware). Then place on the table at least three different wines, all different in style and color, and let your guests try the different wines with different foods and flavors. Be prepared to declare the first bottle emptied to be the best wine.”

If you’re selecting three or four wines, we suggest:

  1. A Dry White: This could be a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or even a dry Chenin Blanc. If you live in the Midwest or East, Seyval Blanc or Vignoles are more likely to be available.
  2. A Semi-Sweet Wine: Think Riesling, Gewürztraminer, some Rosés and White Zinfandel. These will please beginning wine drinkers who tend to prefer very fruity and slightly sweet flavors, and may actually work best with some of the sweet flavored foods.
  3. A Friendly Red: First choice is probably Pinot Noir, but also Gamay, many Merlots and the Beaujolais Nouveaux which are released in mid-November each year.
  4. For a fourth wine, you might add a full-bodied red Syrah, Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon

VIDEOS: Thanksgiving wines

Video: Thanksgiving Wine and Turkey Pairings

Video: Thanksgiving Wine and Cranberry Sauce

Video: Wine and Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Video: Wine and Thanksgiving Desserts

Video: Wine Pairings with Turkey Sandwiches!