A sommelier’s job is to present you with information behind suggested wines, and ultimately serve you whatever you like to ensure you enjoy your meal. Thanksgiving dinner is a challenge for wine pairing because there are so many flavors on the plate. How a sommelier finds the best wine with turkey for Thanksgiving can be broken down into 3 main factors:
Fat vs Tannin
Tannin melts fat. I like to think of a scale from 1 to 10 when assessing how much of each. For example, a ribeye steak is an 8 or 9 on the fat content scale, so we need a wine that’s in the same ballpark for tannin. That way, every bite of steak is perfect with a wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon as the tannin disolves the fat content.
Again, using a scale from 1 to 10 I like to think about how heavy the food and wine will feel on the palate. Zero is light as cotton candy, and ten is something rich and decadent.
Thanksgiving turkey is probably around a 3 or 4 in terms of weight on your palate. Some of the side dishes go up from there.
Pairing wine with food isn’t just about matching flavors. The meal can be complex and interesting when there’s an intention to contrast flavors.
For example, spicy flavors often contrast well with sweeter notes in some wines.
Sugar & Acid – you can’t talk about wine without mentioning the 2 main tentpoles—sugar and acid. Sugar in the grapes comes from sunlight. Acid comes from cold temps at high elevations and limestone soil. Acid is like a squeegee for your palate, a wine with medium to high acid will cut through foods like gravy or mashed potatoes.
Jean Bourdy Cotes du Jura Rouge
If you were to hop in a car and drive from Burgundy, France toward the Swiss alps the landscape would change from the lush green golden slopes around Dijon to a changing elevation as the road begins to wind through mountainous terrain. About halfway to the Swiss border you’d find yourself in the middle of an appellation known as the Jura wine region of France.
Wines from the Jura region can be red, white or rose. The most famous wines from the region are Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille. But the high elevation and clean mountain air offer ideal growing conditions for other light skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and its BFF’s Poulsard and Trousseau.
Which brings us to why this wine is a stunner for Thanksgiving.
It’s not uncommon to open a bottle of wine from the Jura (and neighborning Arbois) and smell mountain air. Seriously. If you’ve ever driven up to the Rockies in Colorado, there’s a purity with an occasional waft of pine. That fresh mountain air note almost smells like herbs you put on turkey. Varietals in this wine include:
• Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is popular at Thanksgiving as it is, but Pinot Noirs from this part of the world are “hippie” style, which is to say very light, high in acid and very aromatic. There’s also a prounounced earthiness that smells like damp soil. Poulsard and Trousseau are to Pinot Noir what Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson were to Farrah Fawcett— greater than the sum of the parts.
Around here, this is out standard Thanksgiving wine because it checks all the boxes. It’s the right palate weight, it’s high in acid and the notes match nicely with cranberry and baking herbs.
Le Vieux Donjon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Did you know Chateauneuf-fu-Pape (CdP) means, “house of the Pope”? Back before the Pope lived in the Vatican, popes lived in middle of the Southern Rhone wine growing region. CdP is the Southern Rhone’s benchmark region and is the size of the entire Northern Rhone. Rhone valley can be separated into two regions with specific laws that dictate what can be made there:
Northern Rhone – Only single varietal wines can be made such as Syrah or Viognier.
Southern Rhone – Wines are predominantly Grenache-based blends.
Grenache can be as light and delicate like Pinot Noir. When it comes from a producer like Le Vieux Donjon it becomes the definition of elegance. CdP wines come from Southern Rhone where other varietals are part of the blend, including Syarah, Mourvédre, Cinsault and others (there are 13 official varietals produced in Southern Rhone).
This wine shows ripe red raspberry and red plum flavors along with fine dusty leather and dry flowers such as lavender. My favorite part is the drying herbs wafting out of the glass. If you sniff hard enough you’ll pick out sage and rosemary notes, which will pair nicely with the turkey.
Riesling is like crack for sommeliers. Some say it’s the most transparent grape varietal, meaning it tastes the most like the soil its grown in (which is blue slate). If you were to lick blue slate you would pick up the minerals on the nose of the wine.
There’s a riesling why this wine shows up on so many Thanksgiving wine lists. Whether it’s from Germany, Australia or somewhere in America you can’t go wrong with one of the most food-friendly wines around. Riesling goes with just about everything, and when you look at all the food served at Thanksgiving it’s one of the few wines that plays well with everyone.
Also, Riesling is low in alcohol. On a holiday where people get together and drink all day it’s helpful to have a low-octane wine that won’t wreck you by meal time. The real beauty of Riesling is it’s high in acid. Acid is like a squeegee for your palate, it’ll cut through anything like a light saber including mashed potatoes or gravy.
In Germany, Rieslings come in different levels of sweetness. For dinner, I’d look for the dryer less sweet end of the scale such as Kabinett or Spatlese.
And for dessert you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect wine than Madeira. Few people know America actually created Madeira, even though it comes from the island of Maderia off the coast of Northern Africa. In the 1700’s, ships used to weigh down the fronts of their ships with barrels of wine while travelling back and forth to the old world. Shipping lanes went right past the island of Madeira.
On one voyage, they forgot to unload the barrels of wine during the summer months. The ship left America, went back to Europe and then returned months later. The wine had completely oxidized. It was a happy accident, but what they discovered was a new wine that we affectionately refer to as Madeira.
In those days, we didn’t have clean running water or Starbucks. Because Maderia is already oxidized, it doesn’t go bad. In the 1700’s before there was refrigeration, Maderia wouldn’t go bad. So really, Madeira was the first American beverage. Some say Betsy Ross was drinking Madeira when she was sewing the American flag.
It drinks like an aged Tawny Port, but has high enough acidity that it cuts through all those rich desserts. It even goes well with after dinner cheese boards.