How to Match Wines to Your Thanksgiving Dinner

There is nothing worse than taking a big gulp of orange juice after a big bite of maple syrupy pancakes. All you can taste is sour, sour, sour. Blech!

Well, that, dear friends, is exactly what makes pairing wines with your Thanksgiving Dinner such a challenge. You’ve got your savory turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy – flavors that scream for a good, rich red with good, solid acidity. And then as soon as you dive into the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce – yeesh! All you can taste is the sourness of the acids in the wine. Kind of kills the whole experience.

Our friends Susan and Jan were puzzling this out for Susan’s brother, one of the principals of Flying Leap Vineyards in Tucson, Arizona. He’d sent her a case of the winery’s different wines and asked for her input. So time being an issue, Susan invited us and a whole bunch of other people to a potluck, where we all brought different elements of holiday meals (not just Thanksgiving) and tried everything with everything. Or tried to.

In any case, there really wasn’t one wine that did the trick across the board. Their tempranillo did the best job, but even it was no match for the sweet potatoes – and these didn’t even have marshmallows. However, we weren’t terribly surprised that the tempranillo did the best out of all of the wines we tried. Tempranillo is a Spanish grape that often makes a pretty in-your-face red wine. But when made well – as this one was – it’s an amazing food wine. That’s because it’s got enough acid and fruit flavors to stand up to stronger-tasting foods, but it’s not so acidic it can’t deal with something a tetch sweeter.

So how do you pick a wine for Thanksgiving or another holiday meal? You want a wine that’s actually fairly light and fruity. You need the fruit to stand up to the stronger flavor of the turkey meat. Or ham. Or pork roast. Or beef. But something that’s got just enough acid to give the wine some structure and to blend well with the savory elements, but not so much acid it’s going to taste wonky with the sweet stuff.

Yeah but, you’re asking, how do I find the right one for my meal? Well, you could buy a bunch of different wines and call your friends in for a potluck, like Susan and Jan did, but that may be a bit much, especially if said friends are also coming to dinner Thanksgiving Day (or for Hannukah this year). You can ask your favorite wine shop person – which usually works. Or if this year, your soon-to-be mother-in-law is coming or there’s some other reason you really, really need things to be as perfect as possible, you can do a mini-tasting yourself.

Buy three to four bottles of different wines that you think might go well, buy some turkey in gravy, maybe a potpie or similar. It doesn’t have to be a great version of one, it just needs to taste enough like a turkey and gravy to mimic that part of the meal, Roast a sweet potato. You can either try the wines blind by putting them in different numbered paper bags, or not. But have your little plate of turkey and gravy and sweet potatoes and take a sip of each wine after eating each of those two elements. Take notes on how each wine tasted with the food, which might help if you get a really close match. But usually, the best one makes itself present pretty quickly.

Just avoid really big, brawny reds (tempranillo being the one exception). Think light and fruity. And you should be good. If you want your big, meaty cabernet sauvignon, go ahead. Just don’t eat the sweet potatoes or cranberry relish at the same time.

Alice Feiring Explains Natural Wine

Alice Feiring chats with winemaker
Alice Feiring chats with winemaker

When Anne chatted with wine critic Alice Feiring last fall, the conversation kind of went all over the place – as it is wont to do when wine people get talking about their favorite subject. Feiring, who had just launched her newsletter, The Feiring Line, has been writing about wine since 1990. She said it was something she fell into, as she had been writing about a host of other topics as a freelance journalist.

“I fell into this area of wine technology,” she said, adding that she already had a passion for wine. “It was just inescapable.”

Feiring believes that the role of the wine critic is to help, not judge.

“I think the role of the wine critic is to be somebody you really like in a wine store,” she said.

And, as we have often noted, it doesn’t hurt to find a critic who shares your personal sympathies. Feiring, for her part, has become a strong advocate for Natural or Naked Wine. It’s a small, but growing, trend in the winemaking world, where winemakers are attempting to make wine by doing less and less to it, including even adding yeast to get the fermentations started.

Side note – it is also an area of minor disagreement between us. Anne leans toward the less is more approach, Michael favors more intervention.

Feiring said that she simply prefers the flavors of natural wine, describing wines that have been made with added acid and occasional bits of sulfur (like, part per million bits) as having a heavier, fruitier taste that just doesn’t appeal to her.

“What I find about natural wines is that they are more accessible,” she said. “And they’re not that expensive.”

In fact, she added that there is absolutely no correlation between cost and quality, although some natural wines will cost a bit more because it is a riskier way to make wine – one of the reasons winemakers add those parts per million of sulfur is to kill bugs that can ruin an entire year’s worth of grapes or wine.

But risks aside, native ferments (letting the grapes ferment on their own without adding yeast) and wines made with less and less chemical intervention are getting more popular and more common, which mean Feiring has a lot  more tasting to do. Something which will disappoint her mightily. Uh, not.

Our Fave Thanksgiving Wine – Beaujolais Nouveau

Let’s be real – most of the time, wine pairing isn’t that tough. You have your basic rule of thumb: white wines with white meat/protein, red wines with red meats/sauces. The idea is that you (generally) want to match the more delicate flavors of a white wine with the more delicate flavors of chicken or fish, while you want a heartier red wine to go with the heartier flavors of a beef roast or steak. And while that is a pretty basic assessment, it will get you through 80 to 90 percent of the time.

Thanksgiving Dinner, however, is one of those 10 to 20 percent times when the old rule of thumb gets a little tricky. Turkey has a much stronger flavor than chicken, but it’s not quite as strong as steak, so a light white wine will be overwhelmed by the turkey and the turkey will be overwhelmed by the heavier red wine. Then there are all the sweet dishes that can throw even the best wine off.

Why? Well, think about what an orange tastes like after you’ve just brushed your teeth or taken a big bite of maple-syrup drenched pancake. Even the sweetest orange or orange juice will taste sour and icky. That’s the citric acid in the orange taking over on your tongue after matching out all the sweet flavors. The same thing happens with wine. Any good wine has several different acids playing out against the fruit flavors and the alcohol. So Aunt Mabel’s sweet potatoes and marshmallows are going to match out those fruit flavors in the expensive, perfectly balanced pinot noir that you bought to go with the turkey, and leave the wine tasting sour and yucky. Not the effect you want when you’ve coughed up $40 for a bottle. And let’s not even get into what the cranberries are going to do.

Which is why our favorite Thanksgiving Dinner wine is the annual Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the brand new wine out of the Beaujolais region of France. Basically, all the winemakers who made Beaujolais Villages would hold a little grape juice back from the newly-picked grapes and make a new wine with it to celebrate the end of the harvest. Well, a man named Georges DuBoeuf realized that this was pretty tasty stuff and that if he bought up a bunch of the new wines, mixed them together, then created this big party in Paris, he could sell a boatload of it and make everyone happy.

So nowadays, the wine is released every year on the second Thursday of November to great fanfare and some sniping by the wine snobs, who love looking down their long, bony noses at it. It’s wine that was grapes, like, three months ago, and it’s very light and fruity with good acids, and it can stand up to the turkey and gravy and is fruity enough not to get too sour with the sweet potatoes. Plus, if you have any wine novices at your table who are terrified of red wines, it’s a great introduction to red wines, in general. The best part? Beaujolais Nouveaus rarely cost more that $15 a bottle. Just one thing to be aware of – the vintage year should be the current year. As in, if you find a Nouveau on the shelf from 2011 or later, walk the other way. This wine does not age well and gets rather blah or tart even as soon as Christmas.

This year’s George DuBoeuf seemed a trifle tart to Anne, but Mike thought it was just fine. But there are other labels that then DuBoeuf, so don’t be afraid to give them a try.

And if you have a Thanksgiving wine that is your annual go-to, let us know. Lots of people like a delicate pinot noir. Others defend merlot as the perfect wine. We’re open.

Wine Class – Why Learn About Wine?

Welcome to a new feature on Wine Class. These are posts dedicated to all those who want to learn more about wine, or even refresh what they already know. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

People ask us all the time what’s the big deal with wine? Why are people so obsessed with this nose or that flavor or this grape or who makes the best and 100-point scores and all that stuff?

So the first thing we want to point out is that you do not have to be “into” wine to enjoy it.  If you can’t tell a cabernet sauvignon from a pinot noir, you can still appreciate that this glass of red tastes good.

But there are some very good reasons to learn about wine, not the least being that when that glass of red really tastes good, it’s nice to know why so that you can find other glasses of red that also taste good. Or to be specific, that taste good to you, because we are all different and what tastes great to us might taste rather blah to you and vice versa.

Also, it’s fun to learn about wine.

“It’s one of the great pleasures of life,” said Lisa Rigisich, one of the co-founders of the Pinot Days festivals around the country. “It’s one of the only drinks that takes you somewhere.”

Rigisich went on to point out that learning about wine is one the ultimate mash-ups of intellectual and sensory stimulation. You use at least three of your senses when appreciating wine: Sight for the color, smell for the nose, and of course, taste. We suppose you could add touch, in that you do get some mouth feel. And there are audio components – the sound of the cork leaving the bottle, the sound of the liquid pouring and the clinking of glasses.

Knowing about wine makes it a lot easier to deal with the rows of bottles on shelves when you go into the supermarket to pick up something on the fly for a last minute invitation. Or when you’re at a restaurant and presented with a book the size of War and Peace listing a bazillion wines you’ve never heard of and the sommelier (wine waiter) hasn’t either. These things happen and add to the stress many of us feel about something that really should be pretty low stress.

It’s just fermented grapes, for cripes sakes! Granted fermented grapes that can be pretty freaking transcendent, but you shouldn’t feel like you need a degree in enology just to choose a decent bottle for dinner.

But then you might want to learn more, because wine is a lovely thing to have on a dinner table, because it does slow you down after another insane day at work, because it just plain tastes good. And, again, it can be fun.

There are also a couple reasons why you might not want to learn more about wine, chief among them because you’ve got something to prove. Anne had a colleague once who made a big deal about how much he knew about wine, and framed everything in terms of what “my friend Larry” said. If you’re only interested in how much a bottle cost, or how many points some wine critic gave it, then there’s really not much to learn and if you really need to, you can look that label up on some snooty site and real off what the writer there thought.

Wine is not a label. If you drink labels, you’ll discover that they all taste like the glue on the back of a postage stamp back in the day when postage stamps had to licked. We know. We’ve had to lick a few labels to get them on our bottles.