Don’t stress about the wine! Below, Christine Hanna -- Hanna Winery Winemaker and author of The Winemaker Cooks -- shares some easy pairings for Thanksgiving, plus a wine-friendly Brussels sprouts recipe.
Here in wine country, we’re especially grateful at Thanksgiving because we’ve finally finished the harvest, and the new vintage is pressed off and barreled down. We can finally relax, enjoy our families and spend time in the kitchen. But even for wine country cooks, Thanksgiving is not without its stresses. As if getting the (hopefully moist) turkey on the table, along with hot mashed potatoes and gravy, isn’t daunting enough, throw in some angst about which wines go with holiday foods, and the best hosts among us are ready to throw in the kitchen towel.
Thanksgiving is tricky because the meal itself tends to be sweet. Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce all can make wines taste sour because of their sweetness. Vegetables can also be challenging to pair with wines, especially cruciferous ones like Brussels sprouts. Their sulfury aroma and taste can make wine taste sharp and angular. So, the key to Thanksgiving food is to first find a little bit of contrast to stimulate the palate, and then match some of the meal’s sweetness and vegetables with wines that exhibit a fruit forward aroma and taste. And there’s no better bridge to food and wine pairing than using wine in your cooking. I braise my Brussels sprouts in wine, and use wine in my gravy, which creates an instant food and wine match.
By all means, begin your Thanksgiving meal with Champagne or sparkling wine. Thanksgiving is the kickoff to the holiday season, so there’s no better time for festive bubbles. You don’t have to spend a bundle on Champagne from France, or even sparkling from California. Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, even Cremant from the Loire are all inexpensive options that provide bubbles and crisp acidity to whet the palate for the rich meal to come. Some Proseccos and Cavas can be sweet though, so seek out dry ones. Not a fan of bubbles? Try a crisp Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc to start, or a Sancerre from France. The idea is to begin with bright acidity and a bit of tartness to stimulate the appetite. It’s Dungeness crab season here in Sonoma, so that’s what I’ll be serving to start our Thanksgiving meal.
For the main event, offer both white and red options. Turkey is a mild poultry, so you could certainly continue with white wine. I like an off dry floral and spicy Gewurtztraminer from Alsace or Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, to match the sweetness in the Thanksgiving meal. Riesling from Alsace or Australia provides a similar floral and fruit forward quality, but without the spice. For traditionalists, a full bodied, lush Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay also works. In terms of red wine, a Paso Robles Zinfandel has a jammy, spicy quality that mirrors the flavors of Thanksgiving. And if red wine means Cabernet Sauvignon to you, opt for a softer, fruit forward Cab from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, rather than a Cabernet with big tannins, which will overwhelm the mild taste of the turkey.
For dessert, pull out that bottle of Tawny Port lurking in the back of your cupboard. Its caramel sweetness is a perfect match with pumpkin or pecan pie. If you’re serving fruit dessert, like an apple or pear pie, then choose a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, or a French Sauternes, as their brighter acidity matches the sweet and tart palate impression of the fruit.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving, wherever you are, and don’t stress too much about the wine. People love to be welcomed into others’ homes, and no one will excuse themselves from the table because they don’t think the wine you’re serving is the perfect match for the food!
A quick wine recap:
Sparkling and White Starter Wines
Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Red and White Main Course Wines
Off-dry and Spicy Gewurtztraminer from Alsace or Mendocino’s Anderson Valley
Riesling from Alsace or Australia
Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay
Paso Robles Zinfandel
Cabernet from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley
Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling
Brussels Sprouts Braised in White Wine with Pancetta
This dish couldn’t be easier, and it tastes even better the next day. In my opinion, everything tastes better with a little wine and bacon, and Brussels sprouts are no exception. Pancetta, which is unsmoked Italian bacon, gives this dish a satisfyingly savory flavor. One of my favorite Sonoma County restaurateurs, John Stewart, makes his own pancetta, and that’s what I use, but you can find readily find pancetta at the market now. You can also substitute prosciutto, which is not smoked, but is quite a bit leaner than pancetta, and its flavor more subtle.
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
4 ounces pancetta, cut into small dice
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Chardonnay
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the Brussels sprouts until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain. In a large sauté pan sauté the pancetta over medium heat until browned and the fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook to reduce by half. Add the Brussels sprouts and toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Christine Hanna (pictured above) is the author of The Winemaker Cooks, published by Chronicle Books, and the president of Hanna Winery in Sonoma, which is generously providing the wines for this year's Piglet Party! Come sample Hanna's wines, along with fare from a dozen of our favorite local vendors, next Tuesday, November 30th at the 92Y Tribeca in New York City. For more info and tickets to the party, go here.