Thanksgiving Wines: Challenge or Opportunity?

November 21, 2020 Updated: November 22, 2020

The Thanksgiving table is often seen as a challenge by those who seek to serve the perfect wine with every meal. The combination of sweet and savory, and the sheer number of courses, present a bit of a gauntlet for the average wine enthusiast. I take a slightly different approach.

I look at the Thanksgiving table as an opportunity. Start with the premise that there is no single wine that suits each course and pleases every palate.

The obvious solution is to let it all hang out. I begin with the place setting. In my opportunistic scenario, I set out four wine glasses: a glass for bubbly; a glass for a rich, complex white wine; a third glass for a soft, juicy red packed with abundant fruit; and a fourth for a sweet—but not too sweet—dessert wine.

The bubbly is my celebratory aperitif wine. It need not be expensive, though given the fact that this kicks off the holiday season, something a little bit special seems to be appropriate. Two of my favorites are the Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé (about $40) and the J Vineyards Cuvée 20 Brut (about $30). These wines are among the finest of their kind produced in the United States and are always crowd pleasers.

We’re blessed to have a number of outstanding domestic sparkling wine producers. You won’t go very wrong with anything from Iron Horse, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, Mumm Napa Valley, or Domaine Chandon. And if you’re watching the budget, Barefoot Bubbly produces delicious bubblies in the $10 range.

By the time you move on to the white wine offering, you’ll notice that the Thanksgiving table is crowded with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sometimes candied sweet potatoes, and typically a green vegetable that has been enhanced with caramelized nuts of one type or another. The stuffing can be all over the map with savory notes of sage, pepper, onion, and sausage combined with sweet notes of currant, golden raisins, apples, or even cranberries.

For me, a light, tart white simply doesn’t cut it. If ever there is a time for a layered, complex chardonnay with hints of spice, this is it. Chardonnay from the likes of Dutton-Goldfield, Merry Edwards, Tongue Dancer, or Gary Farrell (all in the $40 to $60 price range) will find room at my Thanksgiving table. Slightly less expensive but also very good are Morgan, Eberle, Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean, and Souverain.

Alternatives abound. Dry riesling from Smith Madrone, Trefethen, Chateau Ste. Michelle, or Stony Hill are classic and have the depth and complexity to hold up against the onslaught of Thanksgiving flavors. Pinot gris from Oregon’s King Estate or Ponzi also are up to the Thanksgiving challenge. All of these wines can be found for less than $40 a bottle, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle (slightly off-dry) is a steal at $10 or less. Even Ste. Michelle’s higher-end Eroica riesling at less than $20 is a bargain.

In my humble opinion, the red wine in your glass on Thanksgiving should be supple, fruit-driven, and juicy on the palate, for all of the reasons stated above. A young, tannic red would dominate everything at the table and clash with the sweeter elements. Not good, but again, that’s a matter of taste, and my palate prefers easy-drinking reds. Those would be pinot noir, Beaujolais, red Rhone blends, etc.

The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pinot noir. The top producers are many of the same that make outstanding chardonnay, which stands to reason because both are Burgundian grape varieties.

My personal who’s who includes Dutton-Goldfield, Tongue Dancer, ROAR, and Merry Edwards. They primarily produce vineyard-designate pinots that range up to $70 a bottle, so they’re very expensive. Merry Edwards also produces an appellation-specific pinot from the Russian River Valley that’s more modestly priced at under $50.

Slightly less expensive but also very good are Siduri and Clarice, both inspired by winemaker Adam Lee and both providing excellent vineyard-designate pinots and appellation-specific pinots. Most of these wines can be found for less than $50 retail.

Beaujolais has long been considered a perfect turkey wine for the reasons mentioned here. Made from the gamay grape, it’s fruity, low in tannin, and ready to drink young. It goes down easy and is far less expensive than domestic pinot noir. The most accessible Beaujolais in America is Georges Duboeuf. The most expensive Duboeuf Beaujolais, the wines from the crus villages such as Morgon or Fleurie, retail for less than $30 a bottle. They’re often sensational wines.

The less expensive Beaujolais Villages or AOC Beaujolais generally retail for less than $20 a bottle. Same for the Côtes-du-Rhône reds from the top producer Guigal. The Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône often retails for less than $15. They’re impeccably made and a steal at those prices. From the standpoint of price, the Duboeuf Beaujolais and Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône reds are among the greatest value wines coming out of France.

Domestically, Eberle’s Côtes-du-Robles Rouge at $30 will give the Guigal wines a run for their money. Which brings me to the finale: the dessert glass.

Personally, I prefer a dessert wine that’s sweet but not sticky sweet. The Eberle Muscat Canelli (the 2019 vintage is now available) is exactly what I’m looking for. This wine has exquisite balance, a touch of sweetness, and a spice note that is beautiful with—you guessed it—pumpkin pie!

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com