When Columbus set sail in search of India, he had big dreams. The lush, green banks of the New World were abundant with wild vines. Just how magnificent would today’s tamed and coveted vineyards appear to those early explorers?
As we brood on that old, unfamiliar world, a glass of wine in hand, we should dream too, of the bountiful food and wine pairings that await: a Thanksgiving feast, so close, you could almost grasp it.
Unlike those early explorers, however, you need not stray into dark, unfamiliar waters. To help guide you, we’ve provided a roadmap from pre-dinner to post-dessert that spans red, white and bubbly options through Port, Sauternes and Chartreuse. There really are no mistakes to be made when pairing food with wine. If you love big, rich, dark and complex reds, drink them throughout dinner. If you prefer the crisp, bright, eye-opening qualities of whites and sparkling wines, stick to that. Above all, do what you like.
You’re about to see family you haven’t seen since...last Thanksgiving. Once all the over-zealous and high-pitched introductions settle to an acceptable buzz and the group splits into two—football fans glued to the TV vs. those who want to “help” in the kitchen—think of your initial vino lubrication as a chance to set a good pace, to warm up while maintaining your energy before diving into a sea of enchanting wines.
Pre-Dinner Bubbly, aka Adult Bubble “Tea”
Aubry NV Premier Cru Brut, Champagne, France ($40)
Nothing but some of the finest grapes with exceptional pedigree. Because the wine is a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, there’s less of that laser-like acidity often associated with Champers that are 100% Chardonnay. Instead, there’s more texture and nuance, to help keep things interesting.
Pre-Dinner White (dry)
Donkey & Goat 2013 Improbable Chardonnay, El Dorado ($26)
This is a crowd-pleasing, light-bodied, dry Chard with generous citrus and orchard fruit flavors. Everyone will love it, even people who “don’t drink Chardonnay.” So force a glass into their hands and tell them about the up-and-coming wines from El Dorado.
Pre-Dinner White (a little sweet)
Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany ($26)
This off-dry, gorgeous wine is juicy, showing superb balance between bright tropical fruit notes and gripping acidity. This could also last all the way through the evening, and will handle just about any vinegar-based salad dressing with grace.
Tim Hanni, Master of Wine and author of, “Why You Like The Wines You Like,” warns us to be wary of myths that have seeped their way into mainstream “truths”—like red wine is meant for red meat and light wine is good for light dishes. Hanni encourages a return to “The inclusive and hospitable basic premise: ‘If the guest prefers...’,”
Because no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike—and no two turkeys are brined, baked or deep fried the same way—keep in mind the few factors you likely can count on: There’ll be an array of rich foods, high in sodium, lots of starch and proteins, and it’s sadly guaranteed that there’ll be a slew of over-cooked birds, dry and tough. The right wine will save the day. Look for wines that are medium- to full-bodied, round and rich, crisp and citrusy for whites, ripe berry, savory and spice notes for reds, which will exhibit more of those qualities alongside salty herbed-up stuffing and turkeys, creamy gravy and green bean casserole.
Thanksgiving Dinner White Wine, aka The Liquid Gold
Wind Gap 2013 Fanucchi-Wood Road, Trousseau Gris, Russian River Valley, Sonoma ($24)
If you started with white or bubbly, keep going, but move onto a white with a bit more body and verve—like this Trousseau Gris. Concrete egg–fermented for a creamier mouthfeel, this wine is loaded with tropical fruit notes, like banana and mango, along with a lemon spice character.
Thanksgiving Dinner Bubbly Red, aka The Intriguing Guest
Vittorio Graziano Fontana dei Boschi Lambrusco Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy ($21)
For guests ready to switch gears from white to red, this is a good transition wine. A luscious blend of Lambrusco di Grasparossa, Malbo Gentile and a bunch of mystery grapes, the wine tastes of dark purple fruit and savory notes, making it a dead ringer for anyone going the smoked turkey route.
Thanksgiving Dinner Red, aka The Crowd Pleaser
La Fenêtre 2010 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir ($36)
The Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley is known for the many producers who churn out stellar wines from its vines (think of Au Bon Climat, Longoria, Ojai, Qupé, Tyler, etc.) and this wine is all cherry pie, a bit of wet earth, and all pleasing, with sublime finesse and a seamless quality throughout. This wine will quiet even the most talkative aunt or uncle.
Thanksgiving Dinner Red, aka The Wow Factor
La Serena di Andrea Mantengoli Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (vintages: 2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, approx $48–$70)
A round and velvety wine, with a pretty bouquet of red flowers, leading to dark berry notes on the palate (with age, more leathery and earthy notes emerge). It’s superbly balanced and the nice acidic backbone makes for a good pairing compatriot for cranberry sauces and stuffing loaded with dried fruit.
By now, the Chardonnay and Champagne is helping guests soak up rivers of gravy with light and fluffy dinner rolls, while rich stuffing and creamy vegetable dishes are re-invigorated with the Pinot Noir and Lambrusco. With one plate of food licked clean, belts shall loosen and “seconds” are the name of the game.
Second Helping White, aka The Taming of The Palate
Francois Chidaine 2011 “Clos Habert” Montlouis, Loire, France ($24)
If you’ve strayed from red the entire meal, it’s time to cross over, and the three previously mentioned reds will work in your favor. If you’d like to continue with white, it’s time to start working toward dessert. This Chenin Blanc possesses a slightly honeyed nose, a mix of apple, peach and white flowers, a hint of smoke, touch of sweetness. If you’re the host and can’t find this particular wine, look for another Chenin Blanc and let your guests know that all the best somms are drinking Chenin—that its motherland is Vouvray in the Loire, in the northwest of France.
Another successful year of eating more than you believed you ever would is over—at least until dessert. The family is up to speed on all new projects, shifting jobs, car troubles, favorite movies, exotic vacations and the details of the next great American novel, which your sister’s loud, outspoken husband says he’s writing. Responsibilities resume: sports vs. washing dishes. Some break ranks and head out for “fresh air” to talk about the food they just ate. Others are reminiscing about those balsamic-glazed carrots and the first time they tried deep-fried turkey, giving them a civilized reason to toast as they reflect.
Intermission Sherry, aka The Segue
Tio Pepe Fino, En Rama, Gonzalez Byass, Bottled 2014 ($27)
The 2014 vintage marks the fifth edition of this unrefined and unfiltered Sherry by the González Byass family in Jerez, Spain. This Fino (dry, full bodied, moderately high alcohol) is best enjoyed young. Notes of dried apricots, toasted almonds lead to a weighty but refreshing mouthfeel, more dried fruit character wrapped in woody flavors, rounded out by a lengthy elegant spice finish. The Sherry will help calibrate the palate, acting as a kind of cleanser, in anticipation of the sweet finish.
The unwinding: Emotions begin to mix with full bellies and the eyelids of relatives who haven’t paced well start to droop. But! Fresh baked spices and sweet cocoa scents begin filling the air, breathing new life into the family. This is the moment to ditch those Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses for smaller, more delicate stemware.
Dessert Tokaji, aka The Royal Guest
Royal Tokaji Wine Co. 2007 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos ($34)
For anyone still paying attention to your careful selection of wines, this will elevate every bite of apple pie, pumpkin pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie or chocolate pie. Even if you tossed each slice in a blender and topped it all with caramel sauce and whipped cream, this wine plus that mash-up equals life-changing. The Tokaji’s shimmering amber color gives way to a luscious wine, redolent of apricots and peaches, candied orange peel, honeyed and burnt spice notes—fireworks.
Dessert Port, aka The Lady in Silk
NV Fonseca Premium Reserve Bin 27 Port, Portugal ($19)
Bring out the port! With sweet, rich, blackberry and cassis aromas, a velvety and smooth mouthfeel of solid structure makes a great pairing partner with cheddar and aged Gouda, dark chocolate or berries.
As the family gathers in the living room to take in a movie—everyone drifting into turkey-brined, wine-bolstered and pie-filled comas—bring out the unexpected: a bottle of extra-long aged Chartreuse. Arrange a few tulip glasses around the bottle, and like the last scene in a movie, as dramatic minimalist piano music filters in, someone will take notice and slowly make their way back to the table, pour out an ounce, sniff and sit calmly under that lone table light, contemplating the day, the week, the year—their life. Oh, the joy in one or two ounces of a green-flecked French liqueur and what it must have been like to stumble upon this ancient land; how it glowed, confounding the senses of those accidental foreigners, so long past.
And Beyond Chartreuse, aka The Beacon Light
NV Chartreuse “V.E.P.” Green, Liqueur, Isere, France (avg. $107)
Granted, Brandy would be more in-line with this list, given it is made from wine, however, we encourage a leap of faith, because Chartreuse is seeing a revival. The “V.E.P.” translates as “Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé,” in other words, aged for a very long time. Serve it chilled, and take in the viscous, herb-tinged elixir, woody with complex anise aromas and its penchant for astonishing.
Jonathan Cristaldi was dubbed a “Wine Prophet” by Time Out New York for his unconventional creativity as host, entertainer and educator of winos while running The Noble Rot. In 2011, Cristaldi slaved away in a cellar in Napa. Today, he is legit WSET Advanced Certified, writing about wine and spirits.