The Key To Selecting Wines For Thanksgiving: Focus On The Fest, Not The Food

Ultimately, the secret to successfully pairing wine with Thanksgiving dinner is to remember that wine is more than just a series of flavors and structure to match with food. Wine is a celebration.

toasting with wine glasses

For home chefs and dinner hosts, Thanksgiving is the ultimate cooking holiday… an opportunity to pull out all the stops and put their full talents on display.

It's also one of the most challenging. The centerpiece of the meal is a lean, naturally flavorless bird that takes hours to prep and cook. Juggling side dishes (average: four) to accompany it requires a complicated scheduling of kitchen utensils and oven time. And the politics of extended family gathered around the table can make for a stereotypically awkward experience overall.

It's a holiday almost designed to fail.

Thankfully, choosing the wine is the easiest part. In fact, do it right and wine can come to the rescue. Sounds counterintuitive, given how varied and diverse the food and flavors of a Thanksgiving feast can be. The trick is simply to select wines designed to complement the widest variety of flavors rather than trying to pair to a specific dish.

That means focusing on versatile, balanced, and nuanced wines. At a recent Uncorked Kitchen wine class aptly named "Turkey & Wine" the challenge was less about finding wines to pair with Thanksgiving than it was limiting the number to serve during the three-hour class.

"There are so many wines you can serve with thanksgiving, we only have time for six," said instructor Michelle Brede, a wine expert trained at the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Pairing Basics

The general rule of them when pairing wine with food is to match the intensity of the wine with the intensity of the food in either a complementary or contrasting way. A complicated wine will overpower simple dishes, just as complicated food will overpower a simple wine.

With a diverse spread like a Thanksgiving feast, the safest bet is to go lighter, as the more overpowering the wine, the less versatile it will be. Wines with moderate to high acidity will stand up well to tart foods (like a squeeze of lemon on a dish before serving), while fruit flavors will complement typical autumn spices like cinnamon or clove.

Digging deeper into the flavors, the major components to consider are salt, (savory) sugar (sweet), spicy (hot), and fat. Here’s a quick guide to wine/food effects that might help:

How Food Affects Wine

How Wine Affects Food

Ok enough theory. Let’s talk wines.

The first question is always "red or white?" That's an easy answer… either. Or both. Really just whatever you and your guests prefer. Putting a bottle of each on your table is perfectly acceptable.

Ok so which whites and which reds?


Look for white wines with a high-to-moderate acidity without an overpowering oak influence. The Uncorked Kitchen class featured two.

Domaine de Terres Blanches Sancerre Blanc

White wines from the Sancerre region of France's famed Loire Valley are made completely from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Unlike the fruity boldness of New Zealand sauvignon blancs, Sancerre blancs tend to be more crisp, subtle and mineral-driven.

Truchard Roussanne

Typically used in a blend, Roussane can serve as a more understated and elegant substitute for Chardonnay. It has a naturally richer structure and is typically more tame when it comes to oak aging.

Another option discussed, but not sampled, is dry Riesling, which is considered the go-to white for most Thanksgiving tables.


Opt for red wines that are less bold with softer tannins than you would seek out for the bigger holiday meat roasts. For Thanksgiving, the goal is typically more red, tart fruit and higher levels of acidity.

Trisaetum Pinot Noir

You can't go wrong serving Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley at Thanksgiving. It's nearly always the No. 1 pick for any table as it strikes the perfect balance between flavor and versatility.

Luberri Biga de Luberri Crianza

A red wine from the Rioja region in Spain made from the traditional Tempranillo grape that's a bit heavier on the tannins than the Pinot Noir, but with the fruit that will hold up to the turkey (like cranberry!) and the acidity needed to cut through the rest.

Costa di Bussia - Tenuta Arnulfo Barolo

Barolo may be an interesting alternative. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo's increase the fruit boldness and have slightly higher tannins, making it well suited for both the traditional turkey centerpiece or a more fat-forward meal like a duck or a roast.

Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel

Zinfandel is an oft-overlooked varietal that will meet the Thanksgiving needs of the red wine drinkers who prefer richer, riper black fruits, but without the harsh tannins that can overpower a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Also discussed but not sampled was Beaujolais, a wine made from the Gamay grape that is considered equal to Pinot Noir for Thanksgiving meal popularity.

Remember: Wine is a Celebration

Ultimately, the secret to successfully pairing wine with Thanksgiving dinner is to remember that wine is more than just a series of flavors and structure to match with food. Wine is a celebration. It's a refreshing pick-me-up that cleanses both the palate and the mind.

Thanksgiving is a celebration after all. So pick the wine you want to celebrate with. Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful enough. Choosing the wine for it shouldn't be.

Antony Bruno is a Colorado-based veteran storyteller, writer and editor. After 30 years of writing about the intersection of technology and culture, he's spending the next 30 writing about food, wine, travel, and adventure.

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