A Thanksgiving Wine-Pairing Guide

Does anyone else feel like this Thanksgiving really snuck up on us, or maybe that it’s so late this year that we almost forgot? Let’s face it; the local Starbucks in every town in America is already decorated for Christmas. However, this morning, it all became a reality as my wife wanted to discuss what I’m making for Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, I’m making a turkey with all the trimmings. She really didn’t need to ask. But what I really started to think about is what wines I’d be serving with Thanksgiving. The reality is that a Thanksgiving dinner can be a little difficult to pair with because there are so many diverse flavors on the table. Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes (some sweeter than dessert with pineapples on top--a family favorite), mashed potatoes, candied carrots, corn... And can anyone say roasted brussels sprouts (a favorite of mine)—the list goes on and on.

Luckily, I’ve had a lot of experience pairing wine at Thanksgiving, and, trust me, I’ve been let down plenty of times. However, we learn from our failures, and the list below is my list of wines that are sure to succeed. Each one should be versatile enough to handle an array of traditional and unique side dishes, and of course, they will pair perfectly with turkey.

My Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Arsenal

Pinot Noir is probably the most regularly recommend wine for Thanksgiving, and there's a good reason why. No matter what style of Pinot you choose, they are usually softer and more feminine than most reds. With French-style Pinot (Burgundy), you can expect a lighter frame, more acidity and a mineral core. While the New World examples give more fruit and spice, each style manages to accentuate the flavors of turkey, gravy and stuffing (especially with mushrooms).

My Recommendation: Balance is the key here in order to please all palates, yet not overwhelm your turkey, and I can’t think of one better than the 2014 Kutch McDougall Ranch Pinot from the Sonoma Coast. Kutch brings the primary fruit of California, offset by stunning minerality and cool-climate acidity, and then further accentuated by the inclusion of whole cluster fruit during fermentation. The result is a gorgeous Pinot Noir that walks the tightrope between the Old World and the New.

Merlot — yes, I said Merlot. Merlot is usually fruity, round and soft on the palate, yet there’s still enough acidity and structure to allow it to pair beautifully with roasted turkey. What’s more, most Merlot has a savage side with earthy, almost animal tones, and I find that it’s a great pairing against the aroma of potatoes with gravy.

My Recommendations: The important thing to remember here is that most Merlot from Europe will be structured in their youth, and without the ripe fruit to balance it (which the New World excels at), you may need to look for a mature bottle if going Old World. So I’ve decided to give two recommendations. For my New World pick, I’m going with the 2015 Arietta Hudson Vineyard Merlot from Napa. This is New World Merlot done right, showing remarkable balance against a backdrop of rich, dark fruits. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure. As for the mature Old World, you’d be amazed at what you can find, and the wine that bowled me over this year is the 1990 Clos de Sarpe from St. Emilion. To think that a bottle of 29-year-old Bordeaux can be found at just over $100 is amazing, and it will wow anyone at your table, both as a pairing and a baller bottle of wine to showcase.

Chardonnay — I once heard someone say that Chardonnay is a blank canvas on which a winemaker can paint a beautiful picture. Unfortunately, that picture is often of an oak barrel. There’s a lot of buttery (oaky) Chardonnay out there, and it has its place, especially against buttery dishes. However, I invite you to try a Chardonnay that relies on the quality of its fruit rather than the toast of its barrel, and what better time to do it than at Thanksgiving? When you take away that layer of oak, Chardonnay shows the qualities of the winemaker more than the barrel. In this case, it’s also produced by a winemaker whose inspirations are the wines of northern Italy, which means you can expect a wonderfully fresh expression, with lower alcohol, making it a great pairing for your holiday meal.

My Recommendation: The wines is the 2018 Massican Chardonnay, from the Hyde Vineyard. The winemaker, Dan Petroski, is also the head winemaker at the historic Larkmead estate in Napa Valley, and Massican was a passion project that grew to yield one of the most successful, delicious, yet atypical Chardonnays being made in California today. I buy this wine vintage after vintage, it’s one of the few Chards that has a constant rotation in my home cellar.

Syrah performs great with almost any roasted poultry, but it shines best for those who enjoy dark meat, legs, and wings with stuffing (Yum!). These are serious reds rooted in the earth with ripe berry fruits, spices, and enough acidity and structure to handle a large array of side dishes.

My Recommendation: You can look to this variety’s native Rhone or to the cool-climate sights of California here. For a family that enjoys bigger, richer wines, the 2015 Alban Patrina Syrah is sure to please with all of your hearty and spicy dishes--as well as my favorite, the dark meat. As for the Rhone, you don’t need to look to the top shelf for a great pairing; the lesser- known region of Crozes Hermitage will overdeliver. My pick is the 2016 Domaine Combier Crozes Hermitage Clos des Grives. All this wine needs is a little time to breathe after opening, and you have one of the most diverse pairings you could possibly imagine for your Thanksgiving holiday.

Nebbiolo — So while I’d only pull a Barolo or Barbaresco if you have the ability to source a mature one, there’s plenty of Nebbiolo from Piedmont that is easy to find and able to be enjoyed in their youth. The reason Nebbiolo works is its combination of  femenine beauty offsetting masculine muscles, all pulled together by stimulating acidity. Imagine all the best qualities of Pinot Noir, coupled with the core and structure of Syrah.

My Recommendation: An all-time favorite of mine comes from Alto Piemonte, in a little town named Boca, where there are only a handful of producers making gorgeous Nebbiolo-based wines. Le Piane is the premier producer of the region, and something of an under-the-radar gem. For my tastes right now, you can easily look to the 2015 or 2012 Le Piane Boca to pair perfectly with Turkey-Day. Just be warned, you might find yourself hovering over the glass endlessly while taking in its gorgeous perfumes.

Zinfandel can be your ace in the hole. Red Zinfandel is a perfect match for the holiday table. Its ripe berries and spice complement the majority of side dishes, and Zins go great with turkey. What’s more, most of your guests will likely be surprised by how good Zinfandel can be (so you get to play the smart sommelier). The better Zinfandels will have juicy acidity and enough structure to really shine in the glass and at the table.

My Recommendation: Frankly, this was the hardest one to come up with, but only because there are so many good examples out there in the market today. In the end, I went with an old-time favorite, and one that never let me down: the 2015 Carlisle Carlisle Vineyard from the Russian River Valley. If you want the perfect blend of power and spice at your table, then the Zins of Carlisle are the way to go. This is the no-holds-barred pairing of the holiday.

Although I gave you a laundry list of my favorite producers and wines, you still can’t go wrong by following the general pairings of variety that I recommended. Have a happy holiday, and here’s to a successful Thanksgiving pairing.


Eric Guido

Credits and Resources
Article, Pairings and Bottle Photography by Eric Guido.

Food Photography courtesy of Violette Elise Harvey.

Find these wines for your Thanksgiving at Morrell Wine.