The Only Wine You Need on Your Thanksgiving Table

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In most households, the Thanksgiving meal ends up being a kind of chaotic free-for-all: Mains and side dishes are piled in the middle of the table, with cousins and in-laws reaching across place settings to refill their plates—and their glasses.

What this means for you, holiday host, is that you’re wasting your time painstakingly choosing individual wines that harmonize perfectly with your cranberry relish or your sage dressing. Your aim, instead, should be to serve a few bottles that go well with everything on the table.

To achieve this there are only two words you need to know: pinot noir.

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In its familiar form, pinot noir is the wine equivalent of a little black dress: You’d be hard-pressed not to find an expression of pinot—Old World or New, fruity or savory, lean or creamy—that doesn’t go with your Thanksgiving menu (though in my house, we try to honor the holiday’s history by choosing American bottlings when we can).

What’s really cool about this structured, middleweight red is that the notes that you’ll detect after a few swirls of your glass will complement different aspects of the meal: You might notice that pinot’s earthiness harmonizes with a mushroom gravy or highlights the herbs in your stuffing, and its acidity cuts right through a side of creamy potatoes.

Here’s how one single, versatile red wine grape will have you covered from pre-dinner toast through the main event and until the leftovers are tucked into Tupperware:

Photo by Skye McAlpine

Pre-dinner drinking

Once guests arrive, getting drinks in their hands is the first order of business—and there are plenty of pinot-dominant bubbly options to choose from.

Start celebrating with a blanc de noirs (“white from blacks” in French). These sparkling wines are made from black pinot noir and/or pinot meunier grapes (though some American producers go against tradition and include some chardonnay in the blend). These wines—which are fairly light in hue because the grape skins don’t remain in contact with the juice long enough to tint it significantly—are fuller-bodied sparklers with flavors that lean more toward red fruits than citrus. Delicious on their own, they're also are ideal partners for appetizers like arancini or ham croquettes.

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Producers all over the world, including American producers Domaine Chandon, Gruet, and J. K. Carriere, make very enjoyable blanc de noirs. I also recommend Willm Blanc de Noirs Cremant d’Alsace Brut, which is a 100% pinot noir with a soft mouthfeel and currant and cherry flavors.

Rosé Champagne adds instant glam to any holiday meal (and also happens to be a dream to pair with food). Though you may not think Champagne up to the task of complementing an autumnal entrée like pork, turkey, or duck, it does so beautifully. The Bollinger NV Brut Rosé, a rich, layered Champagne, which is typically about two-thirds pinot noir. With savory and floral accents to the red fruit, it's terrific paired with a smoked salmon hors d’oeuvre.

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The main event

Just about any style of pinot goes well with roasted poultry, so look to your menu’s other components before settling on a particular bottle. In very general terms, Oregon pinot noirs tend to be earthier and more minerally than their California counterparts, which are typically a little heavier, with fruity black cherry and raspberry flavors.

If your menu includes truffles or wild mushroom risotto, for example, seek out pinots from Willamette Valley, Oregon. I really like the spicy, floral accents and lively acidity of ROCO’s 2014 Gravel Road Pinot Noir, and Montinore’s 2014 Red Cap Pinot Noir, made from organic grapes, is a savory, lighter-bodied choice.

If you’re serving game, red meat, or other heavy mains on your Thanksgiving table, a fruitier, fuller-bodied California pinot is in order. Good bets include Pfendler’s 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or Dutton Goldfield’s 2014 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir, which has ripe black cherry and black raspberry fruit couched in a rich, creamy feel.

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And for guests who like their wines chilled, fresh, and en vogue, there’s a better option than Chardonnay this Thanksgiving: Rosés made from pinot noir are dry and acidic but fruit-forward, typically exhibiting strawberry, raspberry, and cherry notes. They’re terrific with poultry, cheese, shellfish, and vegetables. Sanford’s 2015 Rosé of Pinot Noir, from California’s Santa Rita Hills, has exuberant cherry, cranberry, and raspberry flavors. Ponzi’s 2015 Pinot Noir Rosé, with strawberry and floral flavors at the fore, is another reliably good option.

Lest the little ones and non-drinkers feel left out of an all-pinot toast, order some of Navarro Vineyards’ non-alcoholic pinot noir grape juice, which is made from the same grapes that go into their award-winning wines.

Alternatives to pinot noir

Not sold on the idea of an all-pinot holiday meal, or have a relative who just won’t come if there’s no white wine on the table? Here are a few other Thanksgiving-appropriate wines:

  • Pinot gris: Fuller-bodied than Pinot Grigio, but made from the same grape. Your purveyor is likely to have solid offerings from Alsace, Oregon, and/or Anderson Valley, California. I like FEL’s 2015 Anderson Valley pinot gris, which is rife with zippy lemon meringue and stone fruit flavors.
Photo by James Ransom

Rhône (or Rhône-style) whites and reds: Next to pinot, red wines made from syrah and grenache, stars of France’s Rhône Valley, are the most versatile at the holiday table. Enlist your retailer’s help in finding a good bottle—you’re looking for expressions that are judiciously oaked and moderately sized. Rhône whites like E. Guigal’s 2014 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc have a similar weight to that of chardonnay, but are more minerally and floral.

  • Beaujolais: Beaujolais Nouveau is released the week before Thanksgiving and some expressions of this lighter-bodied red made from the gamay grape will fit the bill on Turkey Day.
  • Tawny Port: Pumpkin pie, meet your match. The candied nut and fig notes in tawny Port (try Warre’s Otima 10 Year Tawny Port) marry with the pie’s nutmeg notes nicely. Though Port is typically an after-dinner drink, we will not judge you if you enjoyed a glass alongside leftovers of your aunt’s yams-and-marshmallows dish after your company leaves.
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What wine do you serve on Thanksgiving? And do you ask guests to bring, or do you do it all yourself? Tell us in the comments!

Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!
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Tags: Wine, Entertaining, Thanksgiving, Holiday Entertaining