Tolerate Your Relatives with Maximum Class: A Sommelier’s Wine (and Beer) Pairings for Thanksgiving Dinner

Here's your guide to wine this Thanksgiving.
Here's your guide to wine this Thanksgiving.
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Well, we’re here again. Pumpkin spice and Han Solo Season jokes are getting old, we’re deep in football season, and hey, the weather has even been fall-ish for once.

Everyone’s real favorite autumn holiday is already behind us. So, we turn our attention toward the most mixed-feeling-inducing mini-vacation of the year: Thanksgiving.

The heart of the experience is, of course, dinner. Depending on your family and friends, we all fall somewhere on two spectra: first, between terrible, dry, bland food and richly flavored, coma-inducing deliciousness; second, between maximum-cringe political conversations and a genuine, loving good time.

We all have more concerns than those, of course, like budget and the savviness of our company. We certainly don't want to under-pair or over-pair. Yes, these are things.

My goal here is to recommend some thoughtful wine pairings for all needs (and frustration levels).

In an effort to streamline a potentially boundless topic, I’ll refer to “functional” (affordable and approachable) and “fancy” (potentially more expensive and engaging) options.

First of all, bubbles are always the answer. They go with everything. With the richness of Thanksgiving food, you’ll get the most versatility out of something robust and rosé. A perfect functional example is Juve y Camps cava brut rosé, which is darkly colored and big-boned, but for something fancier, I like Champagne Lanson’s structured, multilayered example.

Sweet sparkling reds enjoy a popular category for new wine drinkers, but even the most hardened cynic of a sommelier has to admit they work well in certain situations. The sweetness gives these wines universal appeal, and the effervescence and light tannins present can balance the impression of sugar. Think of these like drinkable cranberry sauce. A functional and somewhat ubiquitous example is Banfi’s Rosa Regale, but if you want to go fancy, look for the much rarer wines from Bugey-Cerdon in eastern France, such as the one by Patrick Bottex. Another great idea, bolder and maybe less sweet, is a good sparkling shiraz like The Chook.

As much as I love white wines, they have a tall order to fill here. Only the biggest and boldest will hold up to Thanksgiving dinner. The presence of oak, and the spice and vanilla notes it contributes, is key. I don’t say this often, but a big, buttery California chardonnay is right at home here. Look for Talley’s examples from Arroyo Grande, just outside of Monterey, California. If you want to go fancy, Ramey and Flowers both produce beautifully balanced wines, or a classic full-bodied Meursault like Domaine Matrot’s, noted for its powerful honey and hazelnut notes, can certainly hang in there.

When it comes to red wine, grenache speaks to me here, with bright, even jammy, silky fruit flavors layered over hints of smoke, pepper and teriyaki. For a functional choice, I love Las Rocas Garnacha from Calatayud, Spain, but even better is a Cotes-du-Rhone like my favorite from St. Cosme. If you want to get fancy, go with a classic Chateauneuf-du-Pape like Vieux-Telegraphe or Chateau de Beaucastel. Here’s a wild card: Australian Grenache, like Yangarra’s, can be a friendly, delicious and conversation-starting alternative, too.

All that being said, I have to acknowledge that beer is a perfect option for this holiday meal. Beer has a couple of advantages over (most) wine: carbonation and, depending on how dark you go, the same caramelization that food experiences. In other words, you get a “scrubbing bubbles” palate cleanser effect plus a natural flavor element that will harmonize with everything from browned rolls to crispy turkey skin. A great functional beer for this time of year is Community’s Public Ale, but if you want to be fancy, go for the world-class trappist ale Orval.

May we all find ourselves on the richly delicious and genuinely loved end of the Thanksgiving experience. Cheers!

Dallas resident Aaron Benson is a Certified Sommelier and Certified Cicerone.

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