Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2015
When considering your Thanksgiving wine choices, here’s the only advice you need: Drink good wine.
Don’t complicate it any more than that.
OK. You probably want to know why it’s that simple, and I’m happy to explain it. I’ve written Thanksgiving-related stories for at least a decade, just like every other wine writer — from local guys like me to national columnists in the big, glossy magazines. Some feel compelled to do so, but often we’re told to write these stories because they’re apparently popular, though I don’t actually understand why. None of my friends or family members stress about what wines they’re going to pour with their turkey dinner. You shouldn’t either.
There isn’t a single “perfect Thanksgiving wine.” It’s a myth.
A traditional Thanksgiving dinner is diverse. You have turkey, stuffing — with or without sausage — mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts or green beans and cranberry sauce. That’s a myriad of textures and flavors — before we even consider the preparation variants on each.
How can any single wine — no matter how amazingly food-friendly or delicious — make each of these taste better, while also tasting better itself? It can’t. At least I’ve never thought it could.
Before writing this year’s Thanksgiving story, however, I wanted to put my personal theories about Thanksgiving wine to the test. Maybe there was a perfect pairing out there that I just wasn’t thinking about?
To find out, I invited a handful of wine industry friends to join me for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — and I asked them to bring wines they thought were great for the holiday. Oh, and I asked local chef Kevin Penner, formerly of 1770 House and North Fork Table, to cook for us.
On a recent mid-harvest evening, this group of turkey wine tasters convened in Macari Vineyards’ VIP room for a wonderfully educational evening of food, wine and conversation. Joining me was writer Amy Zavatto, who is also executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance; Jacqueline Malenda, owner of the newly opened Madiran wine bar in East Setauket; Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards; Kelly Urbanik Koch, winemaker at Macari Vineyards; Regan Meador, co-owner of Southold Farm + Cellar; and Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber, proprietors of La Garagista, a farm and winery in Vermont.
How do these guys approach Thanksgiving pairings? Of what he looks for, Massoud said: “Same as any meal. I look for wines that marry well with the cuisine. For Thanksgiving that usually means light-bodied reds and crisp whites.”
Malenda, who is also a certified sommelier, said “My personal Thanksgiving pairing philosophy is that there are a lot of different dishes served on Thanksgiving and so I believe it’s especially important to choose food-friendly wines.”
When I asked Koch about her approach, she said “The best wines would be the wines that make everyone happy.” I liked her train of thought.
No one mentioned any one grape or even a few grapes. And there’s a reason for that.
Read a handful of Thanksgiving wine stories and you’ll find a wide array of wines suggested — further evidence that no single wine can be anointed “the best” with Thanksgiving. The same was true during our tasting. These are wine professionals — folks who make their living making, selling or writing about wine — yet they didn’t agree on any single wine or grape either.
Wine lovers are, by and large, a generous lot, so it’s not surprising just how many wines we had before us — more than two dozen. There were rieslings from the Finger Lakes and Germany. There was sparkling wine from the Jura region of France. Cabernet franc was popular, with a couple bottles from Chinon but also several local examples. We had a couple of chenin blancs too — one from France’s Loire Valley and one local. Macari’s not-quite-finished 2015 early wine chardonnay was on hand and so was a big-but-balanced Turley Vineyards zinfandel. There were savory, mouth-watering wines made from cold-hardy hybrid grapes, local merlot and even a trousseau from California. We tried sparkling reds from Italy and the North Fork. There were other Italian reds, too — one a barbera, another a grenache.
That’s a lot of different wines, but there were themes to be gleaned from the varied selections.
Fruity and savory flavors were favored over oaky ones. Acidity and freshness were abundant. These were mostly lower-alcohol wines, the zinfandel an obvious outlier. Most importantly, these were all good wines. Some were even great, but they were all well-made, distinctive and delicious.
None was perfect with every single expertly prepared dish chef Penner cooked for us. Some of the lighter, nuanced reds got a bit lost with the well-seasoned, sausage-flecked stuffing, while the spicier reds that shined with that course were perhaps a bit much for the turkey itself, for instance. But those are minor quibbles.
It was impossible to pinpoint a wine or even two or three they thought worked significantly better than everything else.
“There really are limitless possibilities when it comes to Thanksgiving food and wine pairings,” Massoud said.
I had never tasted so many different herb-tinged reds with a meal like this one before, so that was an eye-opener. The cabernet francs in particular — including bottlings from Paumanok, Macari, Southold Farm + Cellar and Anthony Nappa Wines — paired quite well with all the fresh herbs used in the meal. The savory nature of the Beaujolais wines offered a similar experience. Malenda echoed my own thoughts on this, telling me afterward that “The herbal wines really are a fun way to pair to Thanksgiving dishes, with savory and soft fresh leafy (tarragon, sage, oregano) notes to accent the seasonings in the dishes.”
As the evening wound down, we began to reflect on our night spent eating amazing food, drinking and talking about great wines and enjoying each other’s company. That last part of the equation sometimes gets lost in stories like this one. The wine and food are important, but so are the people you enjoy them with. If you’re eating great food, with great wine and great people, that’s going to make for a great experience.
Koch summed this up well after the tasting by saying “I think that on Thanksgiving the most important thing is to enjoy the time with family and enjoy each others’ company.”
So, I guess my wine advice to you is a bit more complicated than “Drink good wine,” but only marginally so.
Don’t worry so much. Drink good wines — wines that you know you like — with even better people. That’s all you need to know.