Tannin is the enemy, argues Decanter's Harry Fawkes. Here's his guide to wine with Christmas turkey and all the trimmings. Updated with new wine recommendations.
Classic suggestions for wine with Christmas turkey:
- Full bodied, oaked white wines, such as white Burgundy or California Chardonnay
- Red Burgundy and Pinot Noir in general
- Mature Bordeaux, Rioja or Chianti Classico
Key things to remember:
- Too much tannin will overpower the meat and your taste buds
- Acidity is important to balance the range of Christmas dinner flavours
Scroll down for specific wine recommendations
Alternatively, search our wine reviews database
Turkey has been a traditional favourite in the US and the UK since as far back as the 16th century in some areas, even if it was the Victorians who really cemented its place at the festive dinner table.
Alternative options from steak to nut roasts may be growing in popularity, but a Yougov poll in the UK in 2016 showed that turkey still commands a clear majority at Christmas dinner.
Turkey is not a powerful meat
Turkey is not a powerful white meat and has a low fat content; the reason why it can dry out if not cooked carefully. With this in mind, your wine matches should ideally be either a full bodied white wine or a medium bodied red, with low to medium tannin and relatively high acidity.
Click on the turkey and wine pairing graphic below to see a full-size version
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.
If that wasn’t enough to think about, there is also the complexity of the accompaniments to your lunch; cranberry, bacon, parsnips, stuffing and brussel sprouts to name a few.
A wine with medium to high levels of acidity should be able to cope better with these myriad flavours.
Wine with turkey: the reds
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 from 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, elegant Burgundian areas, such as Volnay, may be overpowered by all those accompaniments, so be careful.
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.
If you’re not a huge Pinot fan then consider mature reds, or at least those with a few years of bottle age.
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. Tannins soften and integrate over time in well-made wines.
Be wary of too much oak, but some mature Rioja would work well, too. Naturally medium-bodied and full of red fruits, our experts recently found plenty to recommend from the 2010 vintage and further back that had relatively good availability.
Wine with Turkey: The whites
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.
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.
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 2018 after being originally written by Harry Fawkes in 2015 and 2016.