For the vast array of food crammed onto the holiday table, local food and wine experts say there are just as many red and white wines that complement the spectrum of flavors found in most traditional dishes.
But Melia Stopa, the general manager and sommelier at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Fairfax, said people shouldn't get intimidated by specific food and wine pairings. "Drink what you like; what makes you feel comfortable," she said.
For those entertaining guests with a fine-tuned wine palette, turkey dinner pairings can be out of the ordinary and fun.
“You’re not just considering the turkey, there are other dishes on the table,” said Rob Stewart, wine manager at Rick’s Gourmet Wine Shop in Alexandria. “Pick a wine that makes everything taste good.”
There isn’t one right answer for which grape varietals work best. It is unlikely that one wine will carry the dinner from start to finish though, said Stewart, so different varietals are recommended. Food choices exist for the holiday table, so Stewart said it’s nice to try and please every palette by having different wine options available too. Since it is usually necessary to do some advance planning for the meal, Stewart recommends thinking ahead about the wine as well. He already has wines picked for each phase of his Thanksgiving dinner.
“I’m going to start with Champagne and then have some oyster stew and Chablis,” said Stewart. “Then some Alsace Pinot Gris and Riesling, and a 20-year-old Tawny Port for dessert.”
Oaky wines, like Chardonnays, are not a good match with turkey and stuffing, said Stewart. The oak is usually too overpowering for traditional Thanksgiving dishes, he said.
CHAMPAGNE IS always a great way to start off any meal, Stewart said, but drinking bubbly should stop before the dinner begins, since Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally very heavy.
"You can always start a celebration with Champagne," said Stopa. "That always kind of sets the festivities in motion when you have bubbly around."
Once the table is set though, it's time to move on to the non-sparkling wines. For a large party, it's wise to have both red and white on the table in order to please everyone. Cuyler Thomas, executive chef at Artie's in Fairfax, said Pinot Blanc is a great selection.
“If you’re not going to have a lot of wine, go with a Pinot Blanc,” said Thomas. “It’s not too strong; it’s not going to overpower anything.”
Stewart also recommends Pinot Blanc from the Alsace region in France, as well as Pinot Gris and German or Alsace Riesling. These whites can stand up to just about anything, and they won’t interrupt any of the holiday flavors since the wines have little to no oak composition. French Chablis and Italian Gavi are nice Thanksgiving whites too, and can help make “a nice synthesis with all the thanksgiving dishes on the table,” said Stewart.
“There are lots of tasty versions of Alsace Pinot Blanc,” said Stewart. “They are readily available and never expensive.”
A simple rule to follow when pairing wine with food is to match the tastes. A sweet wine is usually best for sweet food, and rich wine goes well with rich food. If there is an element of flavor in a dish that should stand out above the other flavors in the dish, choose a wine that helps accomplish that.
The spicy cloves and black cherries in a Pinot Noir would match very well with turkey and stuffing, said Luis Santiago, the sommelier at Christina’s at the Bailiwick Inn in Fairfax. He also recommends Shiraz and Merlot, and strongly discourages the bold Cabernet Sauvignon grape.
“I prefer more peppery wines, like Zinfandel and Shiraz,” said Santiago. “I have a Bonny Doon Grenache-Shiraz combination that would be great with sweet potatoes and turkey.”
FOR MANY COOKS who go with ham, duck or roast beef on Thanksgiving, a Syrah or Shiraz and some Merlots would be the way to go, according to Santiago. The bold fruit in Syrah and Shiraz could stand up to some of the rich flavors in meats like duck and beef. And the honey notes in the Bonny Doon Muscat Vin De Glaciere would pair well with a honey baked ham.
“Nothing full-bodied for Thanksgiving,” said Santiago. “A medium body is fine, but Pinot Noir is too light I think.”
Stopa said Pinot Noir is perfect for large parties. It's a safe bet, and works well with a variety of food.
"It's very sexy," said Stopa. "If you get the right Pinot Noir, there can be a lot of layers to it. The complexity is not overwhelming."
Another red wine that is almost sure to please dinner guests is Beaujolais Nouveau, said Stewart. The French wine is released each year on the third Thursday of November, just in time for Thanksgiving. Stewart said it works so well because of its acidity and fruit. Also, it’s a delicate wine that also cleans the palette, he said.
Dessert wines are sweet across the board, some a little richer than others. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are not dessert wines, but they have enough sweetness to work well with most desserts. Muscats, Sauterne and ice wine are great ways to finish the meal, but Stewart said port is the way to go.
“Port works well; particularly wood-aged ports,” he said.
The holidays are times to try new things, said Stopa. Plenty of blends are out there that would be great complements to Thanksgiving dinner. As long as the blends don't include any Cabernet Sauvignon, they should work well with food. They're usually not as big and full as other wines, and "they're very interesting," she said. Stopa's biggest piece of advice is to stick with personal preference, and have fun.
"Take a leap on the wild side and try some blends," she said.