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.