Over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner we go!
Whether you’re hosting the big event this year or joining friends and family somewhere else, you’ve probably got wine on the mind, namely what to bring or serve at this year’s gathering.
It’s understandable given that for a lot of people, wine plays an important role in the day. There’s wine served during appetizers, bubbly for the toast, vino to accompany the turkey (and all its delectable trimmings), then a dessert wine to top off the night.
To help with deciding which one (or ones) to choose, TODAY.com enlisted the help of a pair of wine experts to weigh in on how to pick the wine best suited to your meal, which ones to consider avoiding, low-calorie wines and how to choose wine for a crowd that won’t break the bank.
How to pick your wine
Though it might seem simple enough to just grab a few bottles at your local store, when it comes to Thanksgiving wines, there are actually a number of things to keep in mind, says Renée Allen, wine and spirits expert and director of the Wine Institute of New England.
“Don’t even think about the turkey,” Allen says. “A turkey is like a blank canvas; you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine that doesn’t go with turkey; it’s just very wine-friendly.”
And while choosing wines based on the menu matters, the kind of gathering you’re hosting is also something to keep in mind.
“I always tell people that you can make it as simple or as complex as you want," says Allen, who explains that that small, intimate gatherings can make wine pairing easier, while larger gatherings, with a “veritable cornucopia of dishes on the table” can make choosing a wine or wines that pair well with everything a bit more complicated.
Ultimately, when selecting the best Thanksgiving wine, it boils down to one thing: “It’s good to serve wines that your guests are going to like,” she says.
Pop the cork on Champagne or sparkling wine
If Champagne isn’t on your Thanksgiving menu, perhaps it should be.
According to Allen, bubbly pairs well with most anything and has a surprising benefit.
“Sparkling wine can be really great, especially at the beginning of the meal because the high acid and carbonation, the bubbles help clear your palate,” she says. “It actually cleanses your tongue with every sip.”
Allen also says that sparkling wines often pair well with some sweeter dishes on the Thanksgiving menu like butternut squash soup.
“If you’re having things that are popular in the fall, a sparkling wine that has even a teeny bit more sugar, which oddly enough is called ‘extra dry’ will pair nicely with something that has a bit of sweetness,” says Allen.
Champagne or sparkling wines are also a festive way to kick off Thanksgiving activities or to use for the toast.
“I tell people there's never a bad reason to have sparkling wine," Allen says. “It’s celebratory, it’s palate-cleansing, it’s food-friendly, and it’s a good thing to do.”
When choosing champagne, Allen suggests Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru as one to consider trying this year.
Red or white?
Evan Goldstein, Master Sommelier and president of Full Circle Wine Solutions says, when it comes to Thanksgiving, everyone’s got their own unique way of celebrating.
“Everybody has their own Thanksgiving Day traditions and the foods that they like to serve. And my general premise is that with the rare exception, your typical Thanksgiving Day turkey is basically just a bird; it doesn’t have a lot of flavor by itself.”
Because of that, Goldstein, like Allen, recommends considering your sides when choosing a wine. “A lot of the elements that we serve at the Thanksgiving Day table tend to be a little sweet and they tend to be quite rich,” Goldstein says.
“So, as I’m looking at wines, I try and keep that in mind.”
If you’re pairing with a red, he suggests choosing a red that won’t distract from the meal and says one of his favorites is Beaujolais Nouveau.
“It’s sort of a goofy, juicy, easy, tasty, fun, not-super-serious red wine that almost was made for the Thanksgiving Day table. Whether it echoes on your cranberries or simply provides a nice, sort of interesting, delicious way of enjoying your food.”
Goldstein says he’s also a fan of serving riesling with Thanksgiving dinner, “particularly German and off-dry style rieslings.”
Wines to avoid and embrace on Thanksgiving
Though wines that please the crowd should always be automatic go-to, Allen generally recommends avoiding red or white wines with a high degree of “oak influence” on Thanksgiving unless they are chosen with a specific dish in mind.
“Oak can interfere with salty foods, it can interfere with spicy foods and exacerbate those things,” Allen explains. “If you’re serving a creamy or buttery squash soup, by all means, bring on the oaky chardonnay. However, high acid wines with little to no oak have a greater chance of pairing with a wider variety of dishes.”
Allen also suggests avoiding red wines like cabernets or merlots, which tend to be high in tannins, a component that impacts the perception of dryness in wine.
“It’s the phenol compound that makes your mouth feel like there’s wads of cotton in it,” says Allen and explains that a wine high in tannins is better suited to a steak dinner or a rich, creamy cheese-based course.
Goldstein says he’s less inclined to choose a chardonnay on Thanksgiving explaining that while it “can work well with certain elements, particularly things that are toastier and nuttier,” it might not be everyone’s “cup of tea.”
He says that there are a plethora of dry rosés to choose from instead. Allen also recommends giving rosé a try at this year’s Thanksgiving.
“I am a person who feels like you should be drinking rosé all year long. I don’t think it should be just a summer drink,” she says. “Rosés are often really great choices for pairing with a variety of foods.”
How to choose wine for a crowd
When it comes to picking wine for a large group of friends or family, Goldstein says there are a few options starting with offering a variety.
“Whether you have multiple bottles spread across the table, whether it’s set up as a buffet and you have a beverage station, try and make sure you have a handful of whites, a handful of reds or rosés open so that people can mix and match.”
He also says that when choosing wine, consider the people you’re buying wine for and what their tastes are.
“I would give yourself a nice range of ‘price per bottle’ that you want to work with,” he recommends and says that in this day and age “the quality of wine has never better,” and because of that, it’s easy to find good wines for between $10 and $25.
“They’re not going to break the bank and they’re going to provide great pleasure at the table.”
Goldstein also says that there’s nothing wrong with purchasing larger bottles or even boxes of wine to accomodate a big group.
“You can get super quality wines in boxes these days,” he says. “There is fine wine around the world that’s coming in two-liter and above boxes that are really good and quite tasty and are actually quite attractive in their packaging.”
Thanksgiving dessert wines
Once the main course has been served, Allen says that people often assume that their wine enjoyment has come to an end. “And I always say, wine doesn’t have to stop at dessert or before dessert.”
When the pumpkin, pecan or apple pies come out after Thanksgiving dinner, there are a variety of “beautiful wines that definitely go with desserts,” says Allen, who suggests trying a sweet sherry, Pedro Ximénez (a Spanish dessert sherry) or an Australian “stickie,” which is what Australians call their sweet wine varieties.
If the dessert involves chocolate, Allen recommends pairing it with a port wine.
Low-calorie or light wines
If you’re counting calories this Thanksgiving or trying to keep your intake down, instead of adding ice or seltzer to your wine, which Allen says completely changes “what the wine is supposed to be,” drink a glass of bubbly water between glasses of wine or opt for a one of the lower-alcohol wines on the market.
“The low-cal, low-alcohol wines have gotten better over the years. Also, there are a few naturally lower alcohol wines on the market that are dry,” Allen explains and suggests the following:
- Bodega Aizpurua Txakoli (Spanish white)
- Cense Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
- Beaujolais Nouveau
- Beaujolais Villages
- Beaujolais Cru