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Turkey Wines

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This is not a column about crappy wines—wines that are turkeys. It’s about a question I get asked over and over every holiday season: “Which wine should I serve with my turkey dinner?”


Well, when pondering wines to serve at Thanksgiving or Christmas time, keep in mind that perfect food and wine matches are rare in this imperfect world. So don’t strive for perfection; just look for wines that are complementary to the food you serve. And try not to fuss too much. After all, Thanksgiving Day should be relatively carefree—a time to enjoy friends and family, not obsess over perfect wine pairings.


On Thanksgiving Day, I like to greet my guests with a glass of sparkling wine—an ideal way to kick off a holiday dinner party. I especially think the Spanish Cava sparklers from Paul Cheneau and Freixenet are good choices—and good values. Sparkling wines will go well with a cheese plate that you might put out for guests to nibble on, smoked salmon, spiced pecans and even popcorn.


We tend to think that Thanksgiving dinner revolves around turkey. In fact, it revolves around butter—there is butter in everything. So why not look for a creamy, big, buttery Chardonnay to go with the soup course? A buttery squash soup or corn chowder or almost any creamy, rich soup will taste wonderful when Chardonnay is sipped alongside. Good choices would be wines from Chalk Hill, Mitchelton Brothers (Australia), Monticello, Ferrari-Carano or Cakebread. But there are dozens of others that would work just as well. Or, for a different twist, try serving a good Spanish amontillado sherry with your soup.


Choosing a wine to have with the main course at Thanksgiving can be tricky. You need to think not only about a wine that will complement the turkey flavor, but also various side dishes: salty and woodsy stuffing and gravy, the tang of cranberries, buttery mashed potatoes, the sweetness of squash, and the vegetal flavors of green beans, peas or carrots. In other words, you’ll want to choose a fairly versatile wine, but one without so much character that it diminishes the taste of the food you labored hours to prepare. For that reason, a delicious first growth Bordeaux would be an inappropriate choice.


It’s better (and cheaper) to serve a fairly young, fruity red wine, but one with body, depth and some complexity. Full-bodied Merlots from St. Francis, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Matanzas Creek or Franciscan Oakville Estate would all go quite well with the turkey, stuffing and most side dishes. Syrah or Zinfandel would also be a good choice, especially versions with backbone like Bonny Doon’s Eurodoon Syrah, or bottles from Qupé, Gary Farrell or Cline. When in doubt, Beaujolais Nouveau is always a safe, versatile and inexpensive option.


The biggest challenge might come at the end of the meal, if you choose to serve wine with dessert. Generally speaking, pairing wines with sweet desserts is a bad idea, especially when you’re looking to enhance the unique and spicy flavors of something like pumpkin pie. However, if you do serve wine with dessert you might want to try a not-so-sweet Gewürztraminer like Navarro, or maybe a well-made Riesling. For sweeter desserts with fruit or caramel topping, try something like Husch’s late harvest Gewürztraminer.


As I try to remind myself each and every year, the holiday season is a time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family. So don’t stress over your wine choices. Treat your holiday meals as informal wine tastings and try out different wines with different foods. Most importantly, enjoy.

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