Every November, wine columnists warn us about the difficulty of pairing wine with the traditional turkey & trimmings we feast on at Thanksgiving. It’s all silly, and most writers hate the theme. I know I do. I’m not looking forward to writing one this year (and still may not), partly because I don’t know how I’d improve on the one I wrote last year. Here it is, posted Nov. 12, 2016, on washingtonpost.com:
All together now – deep breaths. Relax. Stay calm. Don’t sweat about the wine for Thanksgiving.
Yes, it’s time for my annual reminder that you have much more to worry about than selecting wine for the holiday feast. There’s the menu, the timing, the seating arrangements around your loud relative who won’t stop talking even as he’s stuffing his maw with your food.
To be honest, the great national anxiety over what wine to pair with turkey is a hob-gobble-goblin invented by wine writers desperate to stuff an article with sage advice to a logical question – what wine is best with the bird? A cottage industry of wine snobbery developed around the concept that turkey is a wine killer. Nonsense. A turkey is just a big chicken! Whatever you drink with chicken will do just fine with turkey.
(I’m not making this up. Hugh Johnson, the venerable British wine writer I profiled a few weeks ago, published his first article in the British edition of Vogue magazine in 1960 – about pairing wines with Christmas turkey. The article is included in an anthology, Hugh Johnson on Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling.)
The wine/food conundrum for Thanksgiving is the plethora of dishes, spices, and flavors on the table and on our plates, all at once, rather than in orderly courses. Too often our food-wine pairings become food-protein pairings, and we forget the sauces, spices, textures and well, vegetables, that are also part of our dining experience. (Beware the canned cranberry sauce.)
So my usual advice: Open one of everything. Or at least, a wide assortment or wines that will match well with the variety of dishes on your Thanksgiving table. Find wines you enjoy at prices you can afford for the occasion. For example, pinot noir is a classic favorite because of its ability to play well with a variety of foods. But you may not want to buy premier cru Burgundy unless you’re having turkey dinner for two. Feel free to offer a nice pinot from Oregon or California.
Don’t think of Thanksgiving as a wine challenge but an opportunity. Make a game of it – open several wines of various grapes and styles, then compare each of them with every dish on your table. While you’re avoiding conversation with your relatives, you’ll give yourself a clinic in wine and food pairings. What you learn will carry you through until next year’s Thanksgiving.
Here’s what you should look for: Bubbles go with everything. Sparkling wines, from champagne to Spanish cava, are extremely versatile. The bubbles are palate-cleansing and refreshing, especially with salty or deep-fried dishes.
Fruity white wines, such as Riesling or Gruner Veltliner, are also friendly with a wide variety of foods and flavors. From bone-dry to sweet, Riesling can match nearly every dish’s acidity, spiciness or texture. If umami could be quantified, Riesling would be off the charts, it’s so classically versatile with a wide variety of foods.
If you prefer red wines, pinot noir, barbera and gamay are classic pairs with a wine variety of foods. Syrah and nebbiolo are also good choices on the heavier end of the spectrum. More powerful reds such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot can clash with your buffet due to their tannins and astringency.
This year, I’ll be thankful for friends and family, as well as this wonderful country of ours. And I’ll be especially thankful there is plenty of wine in my house.