It’s the Thanksgiving host’s eternal conundrum: The turkey is ordered, the menu’s sorted, and the guest list is all set, but now you need to decide which wines to serve along with the feast. Or perhaps you’ve been invited to join a Thanksgiving meal and you’re wondering which bottle to bring as a guest.
Thanksgiving is a meal that presents an unusual wine-pairing challenge. Which wine will go with the dozens of dishes that might be on the table while keeping palates lively (and guests alert) throughout the large, long meal?
There is no one perfect wine to serve at Thanksgiving. There are, however, a few types that make excellent options. Armed with a bit of knowledge, you can choose the bottle(s) that will keep you and your guests happy throughout the meal.
Acknowledging that many people may not have access to specific bottles, we asked top sommeliers to instead share their recommendations for the styles, grapes, and regions that deserve a spot at your Thanksgiving table.
Don’t Pair the Wine with the Turkey (or Any Other Specific Dish)
Throw all the usual pairing rules you’ve been told—white wine with poultry, for example—right out the window. “Let’s be real: Turkey isn’t the point of Thanksgiving,” says Andrea Morris, the beverage director at Union Square Cafe, renowned for its elevated approach to classic American cuisine. “Everyone’s in it for the sides. And chances are, you’re going to have a little bit of everything on your plate all at once. Pairing wine with just one of those dishes isn’t helpful, because you’re not eating just one thing at a time. And if you were to pair wines with each dish, you’d get really drunk.”
What you want, instead, is to choose a versatile wine that will complement any dish on the table, bridging across the variety of sweet and savory flavors on offer. Whatever the style—white, red, sparkling, rosé—you’ll want to look for a few essential qualities: bright and vibrant acidity, medium tannins and body, lower ABV, and, in the case of red wine, an element of fruitiness.
Acid is what makes a wine seem lively on your palate, encouraging salivation and priming your tastebuds for food. Higher-acid wines are perfect for Thanksgiving since you want something that’s going to refresh your palate in between bites. Plus, a lot of the dishes are fairly rich, and a wine with lower acidity can taste flat with rich food. “Acid is like a nice squeeze of lemon over everything; it just brightens everything up,” says Morris.
Tannins are what provide the “dry” sensation sometimes found in a red wine. If a wine is overly tannic, you get the sensation of drinking oversteeped tea—the opposite of palate-refreshing—but if it’s not tannic enough, the wine will seem like it’s lacking something. Together, acid and tannins create the basis of what’s called “structure” in a wine.
Choosing a wine with a low-to-moderate ABV, or alcohol by volume, is crucial, particularly for red wines. “That’s probably the main thing you want to take into account,” says Hannah Williams, the beverage director at the acclaimed tasting-menu restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, who’s accustomed to selecting wines to accompany long meals that stretch over dozens of disparate courses. A wine with too much alcohol will stress your tastebuds and dull your palate, making your food taste less flavorful, while lower-ABV wines keep your palate more lively and are less likely to fight with the flavors on the table. “A lower-ABV, red-fruited style is best and won’t blow your palate, and allows you to transition nicely into dessert courses and pie,” she says.
In addition to keeping your palate lively, lower-ABV wines “keep you lively as well,” says Williams, noting these wines bring less of a risk of guests dozing off at the dinner table. “It’s a long, middle-of-the-day holiday, so I personally don’t want a wine where two glasses are going to be it,” says Morris. “In my mind, Thanksgiving is more of a marathon than a sprint.” Morris suggests aiming for 11% to 13% ABV for a white wine, and between 12% and 14% for red.
Fruitiness, in a red wine, is also a desirable trait at the Thanksgiving table. “I always look for a wine with some nice, generous fruit to it,” says Morris, noting that some traditional Thanksgiving side dishes, such as sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, are on the sweeter side. “If you have a wine that’s super-earthy or super-tannic, like old-school Bordeaux, and you’re not getting any fruit at all, it can start tasting really harsh when you take a sip alongside those sweeter flavors.”
Top White Wine Options
“Chenin blanc, to me, is probably the most Thanksgiving-friendly of the white grapes,” says Morris, crediting the apple-like notes found in many of the variety’s offerings. The grape can be vinified in dry or off-dry (slightly sweet) styles; look for the words “sec” or “demi-sec,” respectively, on the label. Wines made from this grape often come from the Loire Valley in France, in which case they will often be labeled Vouvray, but “there are some good American chenin blancs,” says Morris, most commonly grown in California or Washington State.
Williams reaches for a wine from the same region of France but made with a different grape: muscadet. “It’s always going to be good,” she says. The wine’s high acidity, lees presence, and texture not only primes your palate, it won’t clash with any dish. It’s also a great neutral background wine, she says, unlikely to put off any drinkers. “No one’s going to say they don’t like muscadet; they most likely won’t know what it is,” she says. “And then they’ll try it and everyone will enjoy it.”
For the same reasons, Williams also recommends grüner veltliner as a particularly food-friendly crowd-pleaser. “Grüner’s more savory in style, but people fall in love with it,” she says.
“For Thanksgiving I tend to gravitate toward alpine wines,” says Missy Neill, the beverage director at Aska, a tasting-menu restaurant that holds two Michelin stars. She recommends white wines from the Savoie and specifically a grape called jacquère, which tends to naturally have higher acidity and lower ABV. In general, she likes higher-altitude mountain wines, from the Valle d'Aosta in northern Italy or any part of France bordering Switzerland. These regions have steep vineyards that experience hot days and cold nights (referred to as a large diurnal shift), making for unique ripening of the grape. “I think it makes such interesting wines,” she says.
One Red to Rule Them All
As varied as the sommeliers’ choices were for white wines, there’s a red they all agree on.
“One of the most classic Thanksgiving wines, to me, is Beaujolais,” says Morris. It typically features notes of cranberries and spice, mirroring those elsewhere in the meal and acting almost like a side dish on its own. “It tends to be fairly moderate in alcohol; it has some structure, so it can stand up to the food, but it’s not huge, so it’s not going to overpower anything,” she says. “It has enough fruit to go with sweeter dishes, but it also has some earthiness so it’s not too sweet, and great acid.”
Neill agrees. “It tends to be a lighter red that isn’t super-tannic; it’s fruity and spicy and easy-drinking,” she says. “It’s one of those secret weapons for a sommelier, because that’s a wine you can use across courses.”
Beaujolais nouveau, of course, is famously released the week before Thanksgiving each year, but you’ll want to bypass those flashy new releases in favor of a good Cru Beaujolais or offerings from the Beaujolais Villages appellation. These wines tend to represent great values, so $20 will get you a pretty good bottle and $30 should get you an excellent one. If you prefer to drink American-made wines for this most American of holidays, the grape with which Beaujolais is made, gamay, is also grown in Oregon and produces some excellent wines there.
But if Beaujolais doesn’t float your boat, there are plenty of other options; you can look at different grapes that feature similar qualities. Just be sure to keep it light: This isn’t the time to break out a Zinfandel or other high-alcohol and heavy wine. “You don’t want to bring a big-boy Napa cabernet into play, or a brunello or amarone,” says Williams. “When you have turkey and cranberry sauce, you want lighter styles of red wine.”
Those lighter styles include pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley or California’s Sta. Rita Hills. “I think pinot noir is a great way to go; it’s always a crowd-pleaser,” says Morris, who suggests also looking into the “New American” wines coming out of the Sierra Foothills.
“Trousseau and grolleau make reds so light they can appear like dark rosé,” says Neill. “Those are excellent for Thanksgiving: typically tart fruit, tannic, and spicy.” Williams adds her vote for trousseau as well.
Don’t Forget the Sparkling Wine
Bubbles add a festive touch to any occasion—and they shouldn’t only be poured as a pre-dinner aperitif. Sparkling wines are an excellent choice for the Thanksgiving table because they are famously food-friendly. “I think sparkling wine is easy because it goes with everything,” says Neill. And there’s no need to blow your budget on actual Champagne. “I would say you could do almost any kind of sparkling wine pretty successfully,” says Morris.
One style of sparkling wine to keep an eye out for is called crémant, a word used to designate sparkling wines produced in France outside of the Champagne region, which are typically much less expensive than wines made within Champagne. “I think sparkling wines from the Loire Valley are a great way to go here,” says Morris, a sentiment shared by Neill and Williams, who also recommend sekt, or German or Austrian sparkling wine made with grapes such as riesling.
Consider a Rosé
“I think Thanksgiving is a great time for a darker-colored rosé,” says Morris, explaining that a darker hue often means that a rosé has more flavor and structure than its paler Provençal siblings. Depending on your preferences, these wines could take the place of red wine on your table, keeping in mind they should be served chilled. Italy is Morris’ country of choice for this type of wine, particularly the region of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Neill also loves darker rosés; her picks are from Greece, Sicily, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Finish the Meal in Style
When pie time comes, you’ll want a slightly sweeter drink to match. Williams suggests a small pour of either a fortified wine (such as Madeira, marsala, port, or a sweeter style of sherry) or a lighter style of amaro, a bittersweet liqueur that has traditionally been consumed as a post-meal digestive aid.
At Blue Hill, Williams often recommends Amaro Pasubio as a “gateway amaro” for those unfamiliar with the category, serving it on the rocks with an orange twist. “There are also some cool U.S.-based amari that are great,” she notes, such as those made by Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn.
If you’re attending a Thanksgiving meal as a guest, a fortified wine or amaro would make an excellent bottle to bring: It’s an often-overlooked element of the meal and highly appreciated by everyone at the table.
How Much to Spend and How Much to Buy
Keep in mind that wine is not the star of the show on Thanksgiving. You want the attention to be on the food, not the drinks; the wine should function more like background music. When you’re hosting a crowd, your best bet is to choose a more crowd-pleasing neutral wine.
“You want something that has mass appeal for a wide range of drinkers and a very diverse palate, so you want something that’s incredibly likable,” says Williams. She notes that styles such as oaky chardonnay or a very “green” sauvignon blanc can be polarizing for some people. You’re better off sticking to more middle-of-the-road choices.
Above all, choose and serve wines that you and your guests will like. Have a favorite grape or region? Drink it. Not sure what your guests will go for? Offer them options. Some people prefer white wines; others only drink red; still others love anything bubbly. It’s a good idea to have some of each on hand.
Don’t be ashamed to choose wines that represent good values. Since the focus is on the food, this isn’t the time to break out the pricey bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Think crémant or even a well-made prosecco rather than Champagne, or an affordable pinot noir from the Pacific Northwest instead of pricey red Burgundy.
In general, $20 to $35 will get you a good-value bottle at most wine retailers, but enjoyable wines can, of course, be found for less, depending on the region or grape. Also keep in mind that different regions have different price ranges. “Your fanciest wine from one area might be the same price as a low-end wine from another area,” says Morris. “Your fanciest wine from Chile, barring some really crazy blue-chip stuff, will be the same price as an entry-level Burgundy. And I think it would be better to drink a really great Chilean red, such as a pipeño or a carignon, than a very mediocre Burgundy.”
Morris points out that many wine shops offer discounts for buying a case (12 bottles) of wine at a time and often will be happy to help you assemble a good mix of bottles that will suit your preferences.
Williams recommends purchasing wine in large-format bottles, or magnums, saying that’s often where the best retail values are found. Don’t let the bottles’ big size put you off: “You’re going to go through it, for sure,” she says.
Although it may sound excessive, the experts recommend having at least one bottle of wine on hand for each drinking guest, and a bit less if beer or cocktails will also be part of the festivities. “For a group of six people, I would have two bottles of sparkling, two of white, and two red,” says Neill, who acknowledges that it sounds like a lot. “But if we’re together for seven hours, that’s not unreasonable.” Williams would go even higher—she recommends three bottles of each type on hand for the same number of guests, recognizing they may not all be consumed that day.
After all, it’s better to have extra wine than to risk running out. Since Thanksgiving falls at the beginning of the holiday season, you’ll likely have plenty of opportunities over the following month to make good use of any leftovers.