When I lived in New Jersey, everyone knew what dish they had to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner -- Aunt Patty's famous creamed spinach, Great Grandma Dot's mashed turnips, Grandma "Honey" Joan's big, stuffed, all-natural free-range turkey.
I took care of the wine. And I took that responsibility seriously, too, selecting bottles from my cellar as well as newer wines. I started planning in September (all right, August) just to ensure we'd have a nice range of well-priced, interesting choices.
When I worked in a retail wine shop, I learned that such forethought is rarely lavished upon beverages. In fact, the couple of days before Thanksgiving were always a madhouse of harried-looking husbands bursting in from the gridlocked parking lot, wild-eyed and demanding, "What goes with turkey?"
Interestingly, that's not the right question to ask.
A typical Thanksgiving feast is a crazy quilt of flavors and textures, and depending on your family background all kinds of additional ethnic flavors appear on the table alongside the "normal" combinations of savory and sweet.
One wine cannot be expected to pair successfully with yams layered with marshmallows, tart and sweet cranberries, garlic-whipped potatoes, roasted asparagus and a turkey stuffed with Italian sausage. The best you can reasonably hope for is to serve wines with enough flavor and presence to hold their own on that table but not be so big and brooding that they overwhelm everything else.
Since it's the quintessential American holiday, I try to buy American. For whites, I like an un-oaked California Chardonnay like the 2005 Keller "Oro de Plata" ($21/bottle) from Sonoma County. Here in Cincinnati, you could make the case for serving German wines. An off-dry, bracingly acidic German Riesling fits well with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I'm a big fan of the 2004 Christoffel Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese ($19/bottle).
For reds, I like to drink a boldly rustic American Zinfandel, brimming with crowd-pleasing jammy fruit and finishing with the slight heat of black pepper. It's hard to go wrong with just about anything in your budget from producers like Ridge and Rosenblum. A bigger, more fruit-forward Pinot Noir also can stand alongside a turkey with all the trimmings, but stay away from anything too subtle, which will get lost in the shuffle. Look for Oregon's 2004 Cherry Hill Estate Pinot Noir ($25/bottle), which splits the difference nicely.
Whatever you choose to drink, try to shop early.
And have a happy holiday!
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