If there is a holiday that begs for wine, it is Thanksgiving. More than any other beverage, wine is ineluctably tied to the harvest, to bounty, to the very core of what we are thankful for. But there is another reason, too, and it is hedonistic. Wine at Thanksgiving teaches us how to dine, not just eat. It is a provocative distinction, the idea of dining versus eating. But every year, Thanksgiving is there as a reminder that it is actually pretty easy to take a humble meal and elevate it to an extraordinary experience. A few candles, cloth napkins, beautiful plates, a sensational wine and all of a sudden, turkey and mashed potatoes are transformed. It is this transformation that makes Thanksgiving so special and so memorable for each of us.
Beautiful plates, of course, are the easy part. The nagging question always seems to be, which wine? Or better yet, wines. After decades of enjoying wonderful Thanksgiving meals, here is my strategy:
Forget about perfection. Like most human marriages, food and wine marriages are rarely perfect. On Thanksgiving, there are just too many flavor variables going on, everything (possibly) from cranberry sauce laced with orange peel to brussels sprouts with chestnuts to sausage and wild rice stuffing, to get too hung up on a quest for the perfect match. Besides, it is the feeling around the table, the combined effect of the food plus the wine plus the people plus the ambience, that counts most.
One easy axiom of food and wine pairing is simply this: Match good to good, great to great. If you are having a humble Thanksgiving with a simple roasted bird, mashed potatoes and root vegetables, why buy an expensive rare Bordeaux? A Thanksgiving meal of this sort is comfort food at its finest hour, and so the wines should be comforting, too. Think juicy Zinfandel or a lush, super-soft Shiraz. On the other hand, if you are pulling out all the stops and having Thanksgiving as your pièce-de-résistance dinner of the year, that expensive Bordeaux would be a great choice, as would a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Synchronize intensity. A turkey with a rich stuffing and rich gravy does not cry out for a delicate light wine. (Just as a lovely mild fish dish is not built to handle a massively concentrated wine.) Powerful red varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah and most good Merlots. Powerful whites (and if you are a white-wine lover, who says you should not have white) include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
Let food flavors suggest wine flavors. For example, a roast turkey with a spicy stuffing immediately suggests a spicy wine, like a peppery Syrah from the Rhône or a flamboyant Gewürztraminer from Alsace. So when you go to the wine shop, bring your recipes with you, and be sure to tell the wine merchant what the dominant flavors are in the dishes you will be cooking.
In the end, there is no single perfect wine for a given dish. Rather, there are lots of intriguing likely culprits. Part of the joy of cooking, it seems to me, is the discovery of those wines. That is why on my dinner table this Thanksgiving, there will be (as there always is) more than one wineglass at each place setting and more than one type of wine waiting to be poured. At some point in the meal, I will ask friends and family what they think the best wine is, and opinions will always differ, making for a lively dinner table conversation. Which is just as it should be on Thanksgiving.
One final question: How much wine do you need? That depends on how long the dinner will last. Keep in mind that it is never bad to have leftover wine, but it is always frustrating (and sometimes embarrassing) to run out. That is why caterers work on the formula of one bottle per person. Since a standard bottle of wine contains about five glasses, this should be more than enough for Thanksgiving and still leave you with wine to enjoy on the weekend while you are recuperating!
Karen MacNeil, Author, The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing, 2001).