Wine with Christmas turkey – Food pairing

Tannin is the enemy and acidity is your friend when it comes to Christmas turkey with all the trimmings. Here's our guide to choosing a good bottle, plus links to wines reviewed by our experts.

Classic suggestions for wine with Christmas turkey:

  • Full bodied, oaked white wines, such as white Burgundy or California Chardonnay
  • Mature Bordeaux, Rioja or Chianti Classico
  • Beaujolais
  • Red Burgundy and Pinot Noir in general

Key things to remember:

  • Too much tannin will overpower the meat and your taste buds, but remember that tannins soften over time in well-made wines.
  • Acidity can help to balance the range of flavours on the Christmas dinner table.


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It’s several centuries since the humble turkey began usurping peacock and goose to be the mainstay of Christmas dinner in the UK, as well at Thanksgiving in the US. King Henry VIII is believed to have been an early adopter in 16th Century England.

New challengers including steak and meat-free options, of course, but turkey is still the classic choice.

Here is what you need to know about matching wine with turkey.

Remember that turkey is not a powerful meat

Turkey is a white meat and has a low fat content, which is why it can dry out if not cooked carefully.

So, your wine matches should ideally be either a full-bodied white wine or a medium-bodied red, with low or medium tannin and relatively high acidity.


Click on the turkey and wine pairing graphic below to see a full-size version

turkey with wine, decanter

Tips on matching Christmas turkey with wine. Credit: Annabelle Sing / Decanter


Let’s talk about tannins

Fine tannins are great in a balanced wine with some bottle age, but too much mouth-coating tannin could also ruin all those hours you’ve spent slaving away in the kitchen.

There is likely to be a dearth of fat on the plate in general, leaving little to soften tannins in a big, bold, young wine.

This can accentuate the harsh feeling of tannins in the mouth, eclipsing other flavours, while the saltiness of the turkey can also make tannins taste more bitter.

It may seem strange that classic Christmas wine choices include those with relatively high tannin levels, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends from Bordeaux. But, this is where bottle age comes into play, because tannins will soften and integrate over time in the best wines.

Embrace acidity

A Christmas dinner table is full of flavours and complexity. Cranberry, bacon, parsnips, stuffing and Brussels sprouts are just some of the dishes vying for attention.

A wine with medium or high levels of acidity should be able to cope better with these myriad flavours.


Red wine with turkey

There are naturally a range of options and we provide some recommendations below with the sizeable caveat that personal taste is important, not to mention the tastes of family and friends; no one wants a Christmas dinner mutiny.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir from more muscular Burgundy crus such as Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard stack up exceptionally well; and if you can stretch to the Grand Cru of Chambertin then even better.

Lighter, more elegant Burgundian areas, such as Volnay, may be overpowered by all those accompaniments, so be careful.

Pinot from slightly cooler areas of the US and Australia are also worth considering; think Sonoma or Santa Barbara County in California, and Mornington Peninsula or Yarra Valley in Victoria.

Beaujolais Cru

Gamay is often underrated and it’s easy to also make the mistake of thinking that all Gamay wines are lightweight. Not so, especially in those 10 Beaujolais Crus known for making wines with more power and depth, such as Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent.

Mature red wines

If you’re not a huge Pinot fan then consider mature reds, or at least those with a few years of bottle age.

Aged Bordeaux

Cabernet Sauvignon is obviously in a completely different universe to what we’ve just talked about; big tannins, big acidity and lots of luscious dark fruit. Merlot, too, carries significant weight in its classic Bordeaux Right Bank form.

Yet the delicately poised balance of fruit, acidity and integrated tannins can work excellently at the Christmas dinner table, particularly if some of those tertiary aromas from a few years of bottle age have started to develop around the edges. Remember the earlier point about tannins softening over time.

Jane Anson recently picked out wines from Bordeaux vintages that are ready to drink now.

Other classic reds from the bolder end of the spectrum would be Chianti Classico or Barolo.

Mature Rioja

Be wary of too much oak, but some mature Rioja would work well, too. Naturally medium-bodied and full of red fruits, Rioja is also relatively friendly to your wallet versus wines from other renowned regions.


White wine with turkey

Chardonnay

Sometimes ignored at Christmas lunch, a full-bodied Chardonnay can be an enchanting accompaniment to your turkey, especially with traditional sides such as bread sauce.

Oaky richness gives sweet spice notes, while creamy lactic acid really helps out with a meat that can sometimes be on the dry side.

Good Chardonnays, in general, are found in the same geographical areas as good Pinot Noir.

White Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune will work well at almost all levels; upgrade where you can to something like a Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru or a Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru.

The high levels of minerality and acidity in these wines help to cleanse the palate, allowing you to wade through all the trimmings effortlessly.

Other wonderful examples can be found in Victoria, Sonoma and New Zealand. The Kumeu River Chardonnays from near Auckland are extraordinary wines and are capable of offering fantastic value for money.

Several years ago, a Decanter panel chose white Burgundy as their best match with Turkey.


Top tip for cooking turkey: 

‘Take off the legs and cook them separately from the crown,’ says Stephen Harris, chef at the Sportsman in Whitstable, Kent. ‘It’s easy to overcook the breast otherwise. I like to confit the legs in goose fat and last year I sous-vided the breast, which worked well.’


Ideas for wines to pair with Christmas turkey:

 

 


This article has been updated in October 2019 after being originally written by Harry Fawkes in 2015 and 2016. 


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