Thanksgiving wine strategies

Classes of various-colored wines being clinked in cheers over a table; Credit Portra via Getty Images

Whether or not you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, here’s some savvy advice for handling the wine selection for a crowd as diverse as the dishes served.

Tara writes A Google search for ‘What wine for Thanksgiving dinner’ turns up 208,000,000 results.

It’s no wonder that people get so worried about what to pour at this meal. Do you go with the ‘Top Five Wines for Thanksgiving dinner’ or ‘7 Great Wines’ or 21 or 15 or ‘The Perfect Wines’ or The Ultimate List’ or just ‘Best Wines’ for Thanksgiving dinner? And that’s only a selection of the choices offered on the first page of results.

But when Sam Cole-Johnson, Alder Yarrow and I – the three Americans here at – compared notes on how we deal with the wine question, it turns out that none of us even thinks about the food. No matter whether the meal is the straight-up traditional turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc, or a multi-culti mashup or even an all native-foods spread, the meal is essentially a buffet: a bunch of unrelated dishes served all at once. No one asks, ‘What’s the best wine for a buffet?’ (Seriously; Google pulls up nothing.)

Besides, as Sam wisely pointed out, during a festive meal like this, ‘Nobody pairs anything’. The point of the meal is simply to be thankful – for the food on the table and the people all around it. So why get so tied up in knots? It’s not about the food. And it’s not about you, either. You, wine-chooser, are in charge of making sure everyone feels welcome.

Including yourself.

Here are three approaches to Thanksgiving by people as interested in drinking good wine as you are. And while this may seem like a particularly American pursuit, the occasion could just as easily be Christmas or a housewarming or a family reunion or anything else that involves as many different dishes as there are tastes around the table.

Alder writes Often we use the holiday as an excuse to travel. When we do have a family get-together, it’s usually some combination of traditional American Thanksgiving food and Chinese food, given that my wife and her family are Chinese. Turkey, stuffing and chow mein isn’t an uncommon occurrence.

Regardless of what’s on the table, my approach to drinking wine at Thanksgiving hasn’t changed in decades. I don’t match wine to the food, I match wine to the people. My mother-in-law likes just about everything, but particularly enjoys what she calls ‘strong’ red wines, so I make sure I’ve got something darker and richer for her. My father-in-law likes sweeter wines, so invariably I’m bringing Kabinett- and Spätlese-level Rieslings for him to drink (which also go well with anything Shanghainese that my M-I-L might make). My brother and sister-in-law like Pinot Noir, so there’s invariably a bottle of that for them. I’m happy drinking all of those things, and then I bring some other things that I want to drink, which often involve lighter red wines such as Beaujolais or Jura wines (or those from California inspired by these regions).

Sam writes We usually end up at either my grandmother’s or my mother’s house. Since my father’s death 12 years ago, I am generally the one who cooks. It was the only holiday he ever enjoyed. When I was very young, I followed him around the kitchen and took down all his recipes in purple sharpie on scratch paper. It was a chore to get him to measure things; I had to constantly rewrite as he tasted and added more of this and that.

I am also in charge of wine. My mother, my grandmother and my grandmother’s husband drink only domestic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My grandmother likes the festive feeling of bubbles (as long as they’re traditional-method) but won’t buy it for herself; her husband likes sweets; and they both can be swayed Italian but don’t feel comfortable buying because they don’t think they know enough. So I’ll bring a mixed eight with 2 bottles of bubbly, 2 Chardonnays, 2 Pinot Noirs, 1 Italian red and 1 sweet wine.

For bubbly, I’ll bring one champagne with age and I’ll bring either a Crémant de Loire, a Crémant du Jura or a Gran Reserva Cava. The Chardonnays will both be Oregon with age on them (a few years ago my grandmother’s husband declared that domestic Chardonnay couldn’t age, and ever since I have only ever brought older Chardonnays). The Pinot Noirs will be newer Oregon or California producers that they haven’t heard of. The Italian will be older and will likely be Brunello … because they like Brunello but also because they know how much a good one costs and, while I know that’s silly, it does tend to play into people’s appreciation of wines. The sweet wine will be an older Sauternes or a ruby port. My mother, while she tolerates tertiary flavours in whites, doesn’t actually like them in reds (she told me the other day that she didn't like a certain wine shop because they only seemed to have ‘old bottles’ and I had to avoid audibly groaning). So I keep the port and Pinot Noirs younger for her.

Tara adds As my husband and I used to be professional cooks, Thanksgiving is our favourite holiday, as it gives us full permission to cook lots, and for lots of people. The guest list changes yearly, and always has room for friends or kids-of-friends who are stranded alone in the city, and the menu changes as well. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pecan pie are the basics but the rest is entirely at whim, and we go all-in for the theme of abundance. Greek-style or Mideast dishes; tamales and pumpkin-seed salsas; a pâté or savoury pie – it all depends on our particular culinary groove of the moment, and on what other people bring – another joy of the occasion. Since I rarely know the guests’ tastes before they arrive – and since turkey is the least exciting thing on the menu – my modus operandi has been to approach the wine like we do the food: lots of choices, all things that I personally love, opened and on offer all at once. In this way I’ve found a fellow sherry lover and converted another to the joys of fresh, modern retsina; woke up another to the beauty of well-aged Puligny-Montrachet and another to the fact that New York State makes excellent Riesling. I’ve had people who say ‘I drink only Pinot Noir’ scarf down Xinomavro and converted rosé haters with R López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, because, at the end of the day, if you give people good wine, they’ll drink it.

If you’d like pairing ideas, see Tam’s article on Best wines for Thanksgiving dinner: a cheeky guide. And for wine recommendations, we have tons of them in our tasting notes database.

Image by Portra via Getty Images.