A Guide to Over-Thinking Thanksgiving Wine

Sue and I always give some thought to what wines to serve with our Thanksgiving feast and over the years I have reported on our deliberations here on The Wine Economist. Our thinking has evolved over the years. Although we are often “wine first” diners, who choose the wine first and then pick pairings that will complement, we’ve more or less decided that Thanksgiving should be an exception to our rule.

Thanksgiving isn’t really about wine, is it? And it is not actually about food, either, although a lot of attention is pointed in that direction. (I acknowledge that Thanksgiving is about football to some people, but that’s another story.) Thanksgiving is about the relationships that bring us together over the food and wine (and football, I guess). Honoring and deepening those relationships is the thing.

So it is important not to over-think Thanksgiving wine. Wine should make everything better, but it should not be the star. If all you can remember is that glass of wine, the holiday hasn’t fulfilled its potential.

So we pledge not to over-think Thanksgiving wine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about it at all. Here is a brief history of our experiments and how our thinking has evolved this year. In each case, we paired wines with a meal that evoked the spirit and flavors of Thanksgiving without cooking  a whole turkey each time.

Test #1 Joseph Phelps Freestone Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

We love Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon wines, but we hadn’t really explored the other varieties in their lineup, so jumped at this opportunity to test out this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. It was restrained, elegant, and deftly balanced. And it paired very well with the poultry (seasoned roast chicken) on our test plate. We have often served Pinot Noir at Thanksgiving and this would be a great choice.

But Sue started thinking (danger! danger!). The Pinot Noir was perfect with the bird, and that’s generally the centerpiece of Thanksgiving tables, but what about the side dishes? When you ask people what part of the Thanksgiving meal they could not do without, it usually isn’t the turkey that they name. It is always a traditional (or not-so-traditional) side dish. Maybe, Sue said, we should be focusing on the side dishes in our tests.

Test #2 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

White wine makes lots of sense for pairing with the classic Thanksgiving side dishes, many of which are rich and cry out for something with a little acidity. Sauvignon Blanc is the hottest white varietal wine at the moment and this Napa Valley was an excellent choice.

If you’ve grown accustomed to the stereotypical Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc style, the Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc will come as a bit of a surprise. It is elegant and restrained (the Phelps house style at work?). It didn’t try to take over the show but did exactly the job we were looking for as an ensemble player.

Sauvignon Blanc is a great Thanksgiving choice, but it comes in so many styles that you’ll need to think about which one you choose (without over-thinking it, of course).  That Marlborough style might work depending on the side dishes, but it could be too dominant in some cases. Ditto with a heavily oaked fumé style. Think. But not too much. That’s really hard!

Test #3 Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Yakima Valley Riesling.

Sue and I recently attended a German wine dinner at Ricardo’s Kitchen and Bar in Lacey, Washington and it was such a treat that we’ve been thinking a lot about Riesling wines. Those wines went so well with the robust German cuisine we were served that it makes sense that they would play well with Thanksgiving sides.

We chose the Indian Wells Yakima Valley Riesling from Chateau Ste Michelle. The Chateau is the world’s largest maker of Riesling wines and a lot of the focus is on the entry-level Columbia Valley Riesling, which is one of the great American wine bargains. There is a reason that you see it so often on restaurant by-the-glass lists. It over-delivers on flavor at a price point that works for both buyer and seller.

But there is a lot more to Ste Michelle Riesling than the entry wines, so we were interested in how the Indian Wells wine would work for our Thanksgiving test. The wine was elegant, restrained, and well-balanced. Sue said it would be an excellent role player with the holiday meal. I think it might be fun to try the entire Ste Michelle Riesling range throughout the long Thanksgiving weekend, from the entry-level Columbia Valley wine all the way through the iconic Eroica.

Side notes:  Glad to see winemaker David Rosenthal’s name on the front label because he made so much great white wine at the Chateau before moving to his current work with Partnership Wine Consulting. I am also happy to see that the wine lists the Yakima Valley appellation, which doesn’t always get the respect it deserves for the wonderful wines that are grown there.

Test #4 Zonin Orange-Cran Riviera Spritz.

I did not expect that our experiments would take us in this direction, but once I learned about Zonin’s Orange-Cranberry Riviera Spritz I could not resist. Orange-Cranberry. Those are real Thanksgiving flavors at our house. Sue makes a dynamite orange-cranberry sauce and its tart-sweet brightness really works alongside the savory roast vegetables and, of course, classic green bean casserole. How would those flavors work in a wine?

Sue was very suspicious of the Zonin spritz and accepted her glass reluctantly. I thought it might look and taste something like an Aperol spritz, but I was wrong. The color was bright rosy pink and the aromas and flavors very cranberry and orange, especially on the second day, with a pleasant orange leading the way. Very refreshing!  It would be a great sparkler to serve with Thanksgiving desserts and I think anyone would smile if you gave them a glass of this spritz as they walked through the door because they would know at once that they were going to have fun.

Sue declared herself a fan of the  Zonin Orange-Cranberry Spritz before that first glass was empty. What a surprise!

Thinking About Overthinking

Sue and I have learned a lot through these experiments, which will continue through the Thanksgiving weekend and beyond. Thinking about Thanksgiving wine in terms of the ensemble of flavors on your plate has merit, even if some combinations may work better than others.

Once she started thinking about wine and the side dishes, Sue quickly moved on to other questions. Pairing wines for particular guests? Maybe different wines for leftovers? Because leftovers (like turkey on rye with cream cheese and cranberry sauce) are the highlight for some of us. Next question: what wine to serve with turkey soup?

Wait! Are we starting to over-think this? Nah. That would never happen. So what do you think? Use the comments section to tell us what you are planning for Thanksgiving wine.

7 responses

  1. So thankful that we no longer live in the US and no longer have to deal with the pressure and absurdity of Thanksgiving. Much less the laughable task of pairing wines with the food and people. Do not miss it at all.

  2. Mike, always appreciate reading your blog. Come to Michigan. We’d love to have you and your wife Sue see why Northern Michigan is the answer to climate change and wine. At Black Star Farms the 2017 Dry Reisling won “Best of Show” in Canberra. Our Pinot Noir is fruit forward akin to the Pinot Noir’s from Europe and our Sauvignon Blanc is a head turner and crowd pleaser.

    Save a trip overseas and the jet lag that follows. Northern Michigan beckons you and Sue to see the beauty in the fourth coast. Cheers!

  3. Mike: so here is our Thanksgiving dinner line-up: 2012 Kumeu River “Coddington” Vineyard Chardnonny (NZ) & 2021 Jean-Michel Dupre “Vignes de 1940” Beaujolais-Vallages from a single vineyard planted in 1940. (France) And very happy to live in the “good old USA” !!

  4. We used to live in New York City, where the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau was a celebrated event. For me, Beaujolais Nouveau is perfect for Thanksgiving. Big, fruity, sometimes even a little fizzy. Goes well with everything. Now we live in Sonoma county & this is the first year we are seeing Nouveau style wines being released (La Crema and Forlorn Hope). Looking forward to trying them.

  5. I love oaky Chardonnays but have found they don’t taste well with turkey, rather off putting. I’m reluctant to try Riesling’s because my memory of them from living in Germany is that they are too sweet. I’m not a fan is Sauvignon Blanc either. Any wine suggestions for Thanksgiving dinner ?

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