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How to choose holiday wines

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When approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, the question I hear most often is, “What wine should I serve?” Well, when thinking about wines to serve on Thanksgiving, keep in mind that rarely are perfect matches found in this imperfect world. So, don’t strive for perfection, but look for wines that are complementary to the food you serve. And don’t fuss and fret too much. After all, Thanksgiving Day should be relatively carefree—a time to enjoy friends and family, not obsess over perfect wine pairings.

For me, nothing kicks off an important event or holiday like a glass of bubbly. So, on Thanksgiving Day, I like to greet guests with a glass of sparkling wine. I especially think inexpensive Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco sparklers are good choices. Sparkling wines will go well with a cheese plate that you might put out for folks to nibble on, smoked salmon, spiced nuts and even popcorn. Essentially, the sweeter, not-too-dry sparkling wines are terrific to pair with salty appetizers and finger foods.

Thanksgiving is a day when we throw out the diet charts and use butter with abandon. There’s butter in virtually everything. So, why not look for a smooth, creamy, big, buttery Chardonnay to complement the soup course? Buttery squash soup, corn chowder or almost any creamy, rich soup will be enhanced with Chardonnay sipped alongside. Or, for an out-of-the-box twist, try serving Spanish Amontillado Sherry with soup.

Choosing a wine to have with the main course at Thanksgiving can be tricky. You want not only wine to complement the turkey, but also the various side dishes: salty and woodsy stuffing and gravy, the tang of cranberries, buttery mashed potatoes, and the sweetness of squash, for example. In other words, a fairly versatile wine without so much character that it diminishes the taste of the food you labored hours to prepare. Thus, a delicious, old, first-growth Bordeaux wouldn’t be the best good choice. Save it for another special meal.

It’s better (and cheaper) to serve a fairly young, fruity red wine, but one with body, depth and some complexity. Full-bodied Merlots from Judd’s Hill, Trefethen, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Duckhorn or Franciscan Oakville Estate, for example, would all go quite well with the turkey, stuffing and most side dishes. Syrah/Shiraz or Zinfandel could also be good choices, although the typically higher alcohol of those wines can overwhelm both the food and the guests. When in doubt, Beaujolais Nouveau and lighter, younger Pinot Noirs are always safe and versatile options.

The biggest challenge might come at the end of the meal, if you choose to serve wine with dessert. Generally speaking, pairing wines with sweet desserts is a bad idea, especially when you’re looking to enhance the unique and spicy flavors of something like pumpkin pie. However, if you do serve wine with dessert, you might want to try a not-so-sweet Gewurztraminer or maybe a well-made Riesling. Or, for sweeter desserts with fruit or caramel topping, try something such as late harvest Gewurztraminer.

Just remember that on Thanksgiving—as with other meals—there are no hard-and-fast rules about matching wines with food. Trust your instincts. Focus on the prevalent flavors of the meal and pick wines that will complement them. Since friends and family will probably bring bottles of wine to dinner, treat the Thanksgiving meal as an informal wine tasting, testing out various wines with different foods. Again, perfection is not the goal on this day; enjoying a great meal, good wines, friends and family is the only real objective. Relax and have fun.

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More by Ted Scheffler

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