The Best Thanksgiving Wines

What wine to serve at Thanksgiving can flummox even the heartiest of gourmands. Sophie Menin offers guide to heavenly wines to suit all kinds of meals.

11.19.10 9:55 PM ET

Just as no two families are quite the same, neither are any two Thanksgivings, which means there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of which wine to serve with your meal. Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law's home in Georgia includes deep-fried turkey, baby peas, and a friend's oyster dressing (stuffing made with butter, baguettes, and loads of briny bivalves), while Thanksgiving with my husband's parents means a traditional roast bird, sweet turnips, and a fresh cranberry sauce followed by vintage port, Stilton, and walnuts, all evoking a proper English Sunday lunch. When it's my turn to cook, the palate tends to be savory with an Italian bent, sausage, rice, mushrooms, roasted apples, thyme, and sage all work their way in. Then of course there is the question of the turkey. Do you serve one bred for extra white meat and large breasts, or do you special-order a heritage breed with larger legs and a gamier flavor?

Keeping in mind this not-so-random sampling of Thanksgivings, I chose three types of meals with which to share 10 potential wine pairings: Sweet & Southern, Savory, and Heritage Varieties. I leave it to you to choose the ones that will fare best with your family and friends' personal preferences.

But First, an Aperitif...

My Thanksgiving always begins with a glass of Champagne. One of the great wine trends this year has been the growing popularity of grower Champagnes. Chartogne-Taillet NV Cuvee Saint-Anne is particularly good example. Its delicate bubbles carry notes of fresh pear with an almond finish that opens the palate and nudges the appetite. If you prefer to begin Thanksgiving with an American bottling, the 2008 Stags Leap Viognier Napa Valley is a full-bodied wine composed of a graceful lace of citrus and blossoms.

Southern Tables & Sweet Trimmings

How to accompany the broad spectrum of flavors on the Southern Thanksgiving table? A single meal could include clove, cumin, jalapeños, Madeira, sweet potatoes, and whipped heavy cream. Choosing one wine to go with candied yams and sourdough stuffing is challenging. It calls for wines with well-defined fruit that retain their character in the face of strong seasonings, high acid levels to keep diners' palates from dulling, and a hint of earth or mineral flavor to keep the wine aesthetically grounded.

The good news is any grape variety beginning with "Pinot" is likely to fit this bill. For whites, 2009 A to Z Pinot Gris from Oregon is a fruit-forward award-winning crowd-pleaser with ripe melon and tropical fruit flavors and an underlying stoniness. The 2009 Meyer-Fonne Pinot Blanc 'Vieilles Vignes' from Alsace offers precision and minerality along with mouth-coating citrus and honey.

Domaine Serene "Yamhill Cuveé" Pinot Noir has earned its well-deserved reputation as the benchmark wine for the luscious Oregon style. With its dark-cherry color and notes of clove cranberry, it is extremely forgiving of meals that are both sweet and highly aromatic and may well be the perfect Thanksgiving accompaniment. If you are searching for a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, the silky 2007 Gachot-Monot Cote de Nuits Villages possesses a combination of ripe strawberries and currants backed by a lively acidity that will retain its character when faced with a bowl of cranberry relish.

A Savory All-American Meal With an Italian Soul

While recently celebrating Union Square Café's 25th anniversary, Danny Meyer described the restaurant's culinary mission as: "to serve American cuisine with an Italian soul." Cooks who put fresh herbs, wild mushrooms, game, and sausage center-stage in their Thanksgiving repertoire know what he means.

If you want to use your Thanksgiving table as a window into Italian cult wine-making, go with the 2008 Quintarelli Bianco Secco Ca' del Merlo. Rock-star Amarone producer Giuseppi Quintarelli has crafted a highly aromatic full-bodied white wine by blending Gargenaga with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Trebbiano.

If you are looking for something less extravagant, the 2009 Fantinel Pinot Grigio Sant'Helena will make you reconsider a variety that is easily dismissed as an easy-drinking summer beverage. This Pinot Grigio comes from the Collio region of Friuli, which along with Collio Orientale produces Pinot Grigio's most expressive incarnations. The wine's coppery coloring and fleshy fresh nut aromas pair beautifully with turkey and all kinds of roasted winter squash dishes.

Of all the red wines from Italy, Thanksgiving begs for a Barbera from Piedmont. At its best, Barbera tastes of wild berries from the forest floor balanced by soft tannins, high acidity and long length, as in the 2009 Massolino Barbera d'Alba, a wine I would be delighted to drink any night of the week.

Heritage Wines

Purchasing a heritage breed turkey has become a Thanksgiving tradition for many cooks with a social conscience. It helps maintain biodiversity by saving from extinction the turkey breeds our grandparents enjoyed, and often delivers a tastier bird, because heritage breeds are generally raised on small farms where they receive humane care and an organic diet. This sensibility has its wine-world mirror in places like the Loire Valley, where ambitious winemakers are dedicating themselves to organic and biodynamic viticulture practices, natural vinification, and preserving ancient local varieties.

An excellent example is Renaud Guettier, who ploughs his field with the help of a horse and has made it his life's work to resuscitate Pineau d'Aunis, one of the Loire's oldest varieties, which has fallen out of fashion. His 100 percent Pineau d'Aunis 2006 Grapperie Côteaux du Loir Adonis is a finely balanced wine that is in turn purple, powerful, peppery, and rich with tangles of bramble, ripe plums, and sour cherries. Just don't judge it too quickly. It needs to be opened for several hours to show its best qualities. Heritage wines tend to be produced in small quantities, so check your local wine store to see what heritage bottles they're featuring.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Chartogne-Taillet NV Cuvee Saint-Anne $37.99
2008 Stags' Leap Viognier Napa Valley $28.00
2009 A to Z Pinot Gris $13.00
2009 Meyer-Fonne Pinot Blanc 'Vieilles Vignes' $18.00
Domaine Serene "Yamhill Cuveé" Pinot Noir $42.00
2007 Gachot-Monot Cote de Nuits Villages $29.00
2009 Massolino Barbera d'Alba $25.50
2008 Qunintarelli Bianco Secco Ca' del Merlo $44.69
2009 Fantinel Pinot Grigio Sant'Helena $24.00
2006 Grapperie Côteaux du Loir Adonis $26.99

Sophie Helene Menin writes about food and wine, sense of place and the pleasures of the table. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Departures and Saveur, among other publications. She lives in New York City.