Many people’s festive dinners may look a little different this year, given the economic and social impact of Covid-19, but here is our expert advice for pairing wine with turkey if you’re still planning to serve this traditional meat for Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Classic styles when pairing wine with turkey:
- Full-bodied Chardonnay, such as those from Burgundy or California
- Pinot Noir
- Mature Bordeaux, Rioja or Barolo
- Beaujolais (Gamay)
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
The basic rules of 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 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.
This, however, is where several years of bottle age come into play, because tannins will soften and integrate over time in the best wines.
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. And it’s a similar story at Thanksgiving, as Ray Isle noted in this Decanter article in 2016.
A wine with medium or high levels of acidity should be able to cope better with these myriad flavours.
Red wine with turkey
Everyone has their own personal tastes, and there are so many options out there, but Pinot Noir in its various guises around the world is often seen as a great match for turkey dinners.
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.
Be aware, though, that some lighter styles of Burgundy Pinot, such as classic Volnay wines, may be overpowered by the range of flavours on your plate.
How about a delicious Pinot from Oregon’s Willamette Valley or California’s Santa Barbara County? Decanter contributor Stacy Slinkard recently praised the balance of lively acidity, fresh red fruits and sweet spice in this Schug Pinot from Sonoma County, too.
The feathery tannins and autumnal fruit of Mooroduc Estate’s ‘McIntyre’ Pinot from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula could also make it a dinner to remember.
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.
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 still work wonders with your turkey dinner, if some of those tertiary aromas from a few years of bottle age have started to develop around the edges.
Jane Anson recently picked out wines from Bordeaux vintages that are ready to drink now. Some of the top second wines from the Bordeaux 2005 vintage are also hitting their sweet spot, said Anson in an article in September this year.
Other classic reds from the bolder end of the spectrum would be aged Barolo or Chianti Classico.
Mature Rioja can also 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
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.
The best examples exude oaky richness that can give sweet spice notes, while creamy lactic acid really helps out with a meat that can sometimes be on the dry side. A backbone of acidity helps to balance out the flavours.
Good Chardonnays, in general, are found in the similar geographical areas to good Pinot Noir.
White Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune will work well at almost all levels. As above, those lucky enough to be able to choose a Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru or a Bâtard-MontrachetGrand 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.
This Domaine Serene ‘Récolte’ 2016 from Oregon’s Dundee Hills is an example of a bolder style of Chardonnay from the US, showing dried apricot, spice and lots of concentration – but with enough acidity ‘to keep it all in balance’, according to Decanter contributor Charles Curtis.
Other wonderful examples can be found in Victoria in Australia, from Victoria to Adelaide Hills to Margaret River, or in California from Napa Valley to Sonoma’s Russian River Valley to Santa Barbara County.
Don’t overlook South Africa, home to this ‘top-class’ Chardonnay from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, or New Zealand. The Kumeu River Chardonnays made 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.’
Tasting notes: Wine with turkey suggestions
This article has been updated in October 2020 after being originally written by Harry Fawkes in 2015 and 2016.