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Thanksgiving is supposed to be a celebration of a successful harvest and a healthy, happy family, but it often seems to celebrate stress instead. What size turkey to buy? How many side dishes to make? Pumpkin or pecan pie? How do we prevent that relative (Uncle You-know-who) from hogging the turkey or the booze? And of course, what wine to serve?
A quick search of the Internet, as well as my inbox of Thanksgiving wine story pitches, turns up lots of advice on choosing wines for the feast, nearly all of it emphasizing mistakes to avoid. And much of it is contradictory. Cabernet sauvignon is too tannic for turkey, but apparently it’s ideal for mashed potatoes and gravy. Chardonnay is too intense, or a perfect foil for the spices in the stuffing. Almost everyone agrees that pinot noir is perfect. I’ve even seen advice for fooling your guests by serving boxed wine poured into a decanter.
And despite my efforts in this space over the past decade, some myths persist about wine at Thanksgiving. We are still told that wine doesn’t work with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Since we gorge ourselves buffet-style, with a cacophony of flavors all at once instead of an orderly progression of courses, the usual bromides about white with this and red with that don’t apply. I actually find that liberating, and an excuse to experiment with new and crazy pairings.
We are also told sweet and flowery wines work best because of the sweetness inherent in the food. Dry wines are fine, as long as they are sufficiently fruity and balanced with adequate acidity to cut through the heaviness of the food. Another myth tells us only American wines are appropriate. Sure, it’s an American holiday, but what’s wrong with celebrating your heritage with imported wines? And it’s a perfect time to make the rest of your family jealous (again) over your vacation in Tuscany by opening the brunello you schlepped home in your suitcase.
Which brings me to my annual Thanksgiving mantra: Relax. You have more important things to stress over than the wine. As I’ve written before, open one of everything. Almost any wine will match something on the table. You just might need to be careful what you eat right before taking a sip.
That said, here are some basic principles to keep in mind, at Thanksgiving or any time, really:
Bubbles go with everything. You cannot go wrong with champagne, Italian prosecco, Spanish cava or their sparkling cousins from the New World. Other versatile, food-friendly wines include riesling, pinot noir, gamay (the grape of beaujolais) and barbera.
Don’t forget beaujolais nouveau. Your wine-snob friends may sneer, but like Thanksgiving, beaujolais nouveau is a celebration of the recent harvest, and it is conveniently released exactly one week before the turkey hits the table. And beaujolais nouveau, with its grapy freshness, is the ideal partner for cranberry sauce.
Start with lighter wines and progress to heavier ones. Almost as important as matching flavors, you should consider the weight of your wine and food. So if you opt for an all-sparkling-wine dinner, start with a delicate prosecco and save the vintage champagne for the main course.
The seasoning is just as important as the food. Pinot noir loves ginger. Syrah adores bacon. All wine lusts for tarragon.
With these pointers in mind, feel free to roam your cellar or wine store aisle to choose a variety of wines. Figure on one bottle for each drinker — it’s a long meal, and any liquid leftovers can be dispatched during football. And maybe have a special bottle on hand for that relative who always fills his glass to the top.
Most of all, relax and have fun. If someone doesn’t like one of your wine choices, blame it on the cranberry sauce.
Now, for my recommendations: Here are five wines that can spice up your Thanksgiving table. We start with a superb riesling and two delicious petite sirahs — a case study in different styles — all from California’s Mendocino County. These are joined by a pinot noir from Oregon and a spiced, fortified wine from Germany.
Potter Valley, Calif., $29
We tend to discount California for riesling, which performs well in cooler climates such as Oregon or New York. Chateau Montelena produces this classically styled, racy version, with citrus and orchard fruit flavors, great acidity and just a hint of sweetness. Buy up: There will not be a 2018, as the winery rejected the grapes because of smoke taint from wildfires in Mendocino County. Alcohol by volume: 13.4 percent.
Distributed by M. Touton Selection: Available in the District at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Eye Street Cellars, Harry’s Reserve Fine Wine & Spirits, Rodman’s, S&R Liquors, the Wine Outlet. Available in Maryland at Apple Greene Wine & Spirits in Dunkirk, Chesapeake Wine Co., the Old Vine and Wine Source in Baltimore, Village Liquors in Clarksville, Columbia Palace Wine & Spirits and Kings Contrivance Liquor Shop in Columbia, Goska’s Liquors in Severna Park, Jason’s Wine & Spirits in Ellicott City, Old Farm Liquors in Frederick, Tilghman Island Country Store in Tilghman Island; on the list at Two if By Sea on Tilghman Island. Available in Virginia at Specials Wine Cellar in Kilmarnock, the Wine Outlet in Great Falls.
Yorkville Highlands, Calif., $33
Petite sirah is always big, but this one is also nimble, adding a rare elegance to the variety. This lovely wine offers blackberry fruit flavors with grippy, earthy tannins that give it a sense of being firmly rooted in its terroir. Absolutely delicious. ABV: 14.1 percent.
Distributed by Simon N Cellars: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley. Available in Maryland at Wine Cellars of Annapolis. Available in Virginia at Leesburg Vintner in Leesburg, Tastings of Charlottesville and Wine Warehouse in Charlottesville, Tinto Wine & Cheese (Chesapeake, Virginia Beach).
Willamette Valley, Ore., $28
Pinot noir is a great choice for Thanksgiving because of its versatility with a wide variety of foods. This fine Oregon example from Boedecker Cellars offers flavors of candied cherries, raspberries and — dare I say it? — cranberries. It’s tart and refreshing with good balance, texture and finish. ABV: 13.3 percent.
Distributed by Elite: Available in the District at Downtown Liquors, Lion’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Modern Liquors, Rosebud Liquor; on the list at Kapnos, Magnolia, Pennsylvania 6. Available in Maryland at Capital Beer & Wine and Cork 57 Beer and Wine in Bethesda, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Rodman’s in Wheaton; on the list at Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park. Available in Virginia at Grapevine in Warrenton, Libbie Market in Richmond, Society Fair in Alexandria. On the list at Sonoma Cellar in Alexandria, Trummer’s on Main in Clifton.
Mendocino County, Calif., $18
This is a big, powerful California red wine, with a plush, inky texture and flavors of vanilla, black cherry and plum. Petite sirah has become a bit of a cult wine, and it is unusual now to find one this good under $20. This one delivers. ABV: 14.7 percent.
Distributed by M. Touton Selection: Available in the District at Eye Street Cellars, Rodman’s, the Wine Outlet. Available in Maryland at Bethesda Co-Op in Cabin John, Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Old Farm Liquors in Frederick. Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville, Libbie Market in Richmond, the Wine Outlet (various locations).
I was ready to dismiss this wine, with its ceramic bottle and swing-top beer-bottle cap, for lacking seriousness. But it’s rather tasty — a fortified red wine, moderately sweet, flavored with cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Think of the mulled wine popular in Europe at winter markets. Whether you warm it or drink at room temperature, it is a good pairing for pumpkin pie or chocolate desserts, and would be a great wine to poach pears in. ABV: 10.5 percent.
Imported by Edelheiss Wine, distributed by Craft Wine in the District and Maryland, Virginia Imports in Virginia: Available in the District at Central Liquors, Chat’s Liquors, Costco, D’Vines, Gallagher & Graham Fine Spirits, LAX Wine & Spirits, Minnesota Liquors, Mom’s Organic Market, Riggs Liquor, Yes! Organic Market (Brookland, Petworth, Eighth Street SE); on the list at Lauriol Plaza. Available in Maryland at Absher Liquors in La Plata, Angelo’s Beer Wine Liquor, Berry Liquors and Big Mouth Liquor in Waldorf, Bargain Beverage in Denton, Dunkirk Wine & Spirits in Dunkirk, Friendly Food Store in Stevensville, Hillside Market & Liquors in Centerville, Hops & Vines in Odenton, Manokee Wine & Spirits in Accokeek, Montgomery County Liquor Stores (various locations), Nuwave Liquors in Fort Washington, Potomac Gourmet Market in National Harbor, Sunny’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Eldersburg, Touch of Italy in Ocean City, Wine & Liquor Depot in Brandywine, Woodmore Wine and Spirits in Lanham, Yes! Organic Market in Hyattsville; on the list at Big Bats Cafe in Stevensville, Fifer’s Seafood in Pasadena, Hook & Reel in Lanham, Proud Mary Waterfront Restaurant & Bar in Fort Washington. Available in Virginia at Costco in Arlington, Mom’s Organic Market (various locations), Wegmans (various locations).
Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.