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How to choose the best Thanksgiving wine

Choosing Thanksgiving wine is a minefield of trying to pair with many flavours of the dinner table and attempting to please all the family. Ray Isle gives us his top tips for finding the perfect bottles...

  • See our wine recommendations below

Writing about Thanksgiving wine pairings is, for wine writers, almost as much as yearly ritual as Thanksgiving itself.

And like Thanksgiving, there are traditions involved. For example:

  • Stating that turkey in and of itself doesn’t taste like much and therefore one should consider the plethora of side dishes on the table;
  • Noting that Pinot Noir and Riesling have been anointed by sommeliers (and many others) as go-to wines that pair with anything;
  • Noting that since turkey-day is a deeply American holiday, wines from the US are the appropriate option.

Nothing wrong with all that. However, my suggestion is actually to more or less ignore what’s on the table.

Most Thanksgiving dinners involve a mass of different foods heaped together on a plate: roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and the list goes on. One bite may be turkey (white meat? dark? with gravy? without?); the next a brussel sprout (roasted? steamed? buttered?); then yams with marshmallows on top (in our house, at least; see above tradition).

Worrying about pairing a specific wine with all that seems a bit far-fetched.

Instead, I’d suggest that Thanksgiving wine choices are really more about pairing wines with people. To put it another way, a holiday dinner isn’t the time to try to convince your father-in-law that an orange-hued, skin-fermented Ribolla Gialla is a better idea with the roast bird than the affordable red Bordeaux, which he’s had at every Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Better to give him a wine that will make him happy, and keep the family peace.

Guide to Wine and turkey matching

What kind of Thanksgiving guest are you?

To that end, I’d suggest slotting your Thanksgiving guests into one of three categories:

  • Old School
  • Moderately Adventurous
  • Off the Wall

In my case, for instance, a large number of elderly in-laws would likely stage an armed rebellion at our Thanksgiving dinner if there wasn’t Chardonnay on the table.

On the other hand, if the in-laws suddenly decided to go on a lengthy cruise during November and I were able to invite my wine-geek friends, they’d all be appalled to find affordable Chardonnay on the table; a bottle of Jura Savagnin or two, though, and they’d be thrilled. With that approach in mind, here are some excellent Thanksgiving dinner options, at various prices.

The Thanksgiving wine options, for each type of guest

Ray Isle is executive wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. Originally published in 2015 but updated with more wine choices from Decanter contributors in October 2018.

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