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Wine with turkey: A food pairing guide

From the red fruit and acidity of great Pinot Noir to the complexity of a top Chardonnay and the limitless layers of aged Barolo, there are plenty of options for pairing wine with turkey this Christmas.

Classic styles when pairing wine with turkey:

Remember that turkey is not a powerful meat

When pairing wine with turkey, remember that this is a white meat with a low fat content, which is why it can dry out if not cooked carefully.

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.


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Pairing wine with turkey: a visual guide

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

turkey with wine, decanter

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


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The basic rules of pairing wine with turkey

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 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. The saltiness of the turkey can also make tannins taste more bitter.

It may seem strange that classic wine choices include those with relatively high tannin levels, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends from Bordeaux.

This, however, is where several years of bottle age come into play. Tannins will soften and integrate over time in the best wines.

Embrace acidity when pairing wine with turkey

A roast turkey dinner is often full of flavours and complexity. Sides like 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

Taste is personal and there are many options out there, but but Pinot Noir is often seen as a great match for turkey dinners.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir from bolder Burgundy crus, such as Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard, should work exceptionally well.

If you can stretch to the Grand Cru of Chambertin then you’re in for a treat, but there are also plenty of less expensive options out there. Try looking towards Fixin or Santenay, for example.

Some lighter styles of Burgundy Pinot, such as classic Volnay wines, may be overpowered by the range of flavours on your plate.

You can also look to other relatively cool-climate regions known for great Pinot Noir. These include Central Otago in New Zealand, Mornington Peninsula in Australia, The Finger Lakes in New York State or even Essex or Kent in the UK, too.

Pinot Noir is also a good pairing with cold roast turkey leftovers, according to food and wine expert Fiona Beckett. She previously recommended ‘a riper, more robustly fruity Pinot Noir from, say, California, Oregon or New Zealand’.

Beaujolais Cru

Gamay is arguably still underrated as a grape variety and yet it can produce red wines offering delicious depth, as well as drinking pleasure.

In its Beaujolais heartland, look towards the 10 ‘Crus’, and perhaps especially those known for making slightly more powerful styles, such as Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent.

Aged Bordeaux

Cabernet Sauvignon is in a completely different universe to what we’ve just talked about, with 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 still work wonders with your turkey dinner, if tertiary aromas from a few years of bottle age have started to develop around the edges.

Last year, Decanter revisited the Bordeaux 2012 vintage 10 years on from the harvest, and Jane Anson selected a fine collection from the 2000s that are beginning to drink wonderfully.

Aged Barolo or Chianti Classico are other classic reds to consider with turkey.

Mature Rioja can combine those lovely, earthy, mushroomy aromas with bright red fruit and medium-weight tannins. There are also plenty of relatively good value options.

Be wary of choosing a wine with too much oak influence, however.


White wine with turkey

Chardonnay

A full-bodied Chardonnay can be an enchanting accompaniment to your turkey, especially with traditional sides like bread sauce.

The best examples exude oaky richness that can give sweet spice notes. Creamy lactic acid also really helps out with a meat that can sometimes be on the dry side. A backbone of acidity brings balance to the flavours.

Good Chardonnays, in general, are found in the similar geographical areas to good Pinot Noir.

White Burgundy will work well at almost all levels.

Those lucky enough to be able to choose a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru or a Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru are unlikely to be disappointed.

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

The Mâconnais is an area to explore for relative value options, particularly for anyone who enjoys riper fruit notes on their Chardonnay.

Other wonderful examples can be found in Australia, from Victoria to Adelaide Hills and Margaret River, or in California from Napa Valley to Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County.

Don’t overlook South Africa, home to this ‘fresh and spiky’ Chardonnay from Storm, or New Zealand, such as this fantastic value, ‘silky and pure’ offering from Wairarapa.


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.’


Tasting notes: Wine with turkey suggestions


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