With the arduous work that goes into preparing a turkey dinner, wine pairings may feel like an afterthought—until it’s carving time and your relatives begin piling into the dining room.
It’s no wonder that the Saturday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are the busiest days of the year at wine shops around the U.S.
But worry not. The Standard asked three local wine experts to put together their picks for the perfect pairings for Thanksgiving dinner.
The bottom line? Serve what you like to drink.
“Thanksgiving is a ‘feasting and gathering’ holiday, not a time to pull out bottles you’ve been saving for 20 years,” according to Michael Kennel, buyer for D&M Wines & Liquors on Fillmore, which is good news for those of us without wine cellars and wads of cash. “On Thanksgiving, the wine is hanging back, playing defense as opposed to offense.”
Beth Hughes is the owner of Bottle Bacchanal, a wine boutique in the Castro that centers on femme and queer producers. She leans red during the holiday season. “Thanksgiving definitely screams ‘red wine holiday,’” she said. “The days are shorter, and the chill is creeping in. Nothing better than a few bottles of red to warm you up.”
(Getting thirsty? Check out our guide to wine bars in San Francisco for some additional tasting opportunities this holiday season.)
Over in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, Ezra Chomak manages the wine shop and bar at Oakland Yard, drawing on knowledge from over a decade in the industry.
Kennel, Hughes and Chomak picked out a variety of varietals—some familiar, some unique—so you’re not left vacantly staring at the wine section of the grocery store on Wednesday night.
Chomak prefers to pop things off with a bubbly aperitif. Lambrusco is a light, sparkling red wine from the top of the boot that plays well with small bites.
Because Thanksgiving is rarely served in courses, D&M’s Kennel encourages buyers not to feel tied to any particular sequence for pouring wine on the holiday. But the sweet pea and citrus crispness of the Bernard Ott Fass 4 is a good first move. Austria’s Grüner Veltliner—aka Grüner, GV, gru-vee and a name created for the U.S., groovy—is produced in stainless steel, a winner with a big dinner. “Oak at Thanksgiving doesn’t work. You want crisp and clean, not rich and full,” says Kennel.
Too many drinkers equate "Riesling" with the often too-sweet German style of winemaking. And this Italian bottle is actually from South Tyrol, which means it is more like something you’d find in Austria. But Kennel recommends its zippy combination of lime zest and minerality—perfect for a pre-feast sip.
Sourced from a 17th century grape originating north of Lyon, the bold, red berry flavors and medium-to-high acidity of this Gamay Beaujolais carries an easy finish that will complement a charcuterie platter or crudité when served slightly chilled. “Perfect while you wait for the turkey that is definitely taking way longer to cook than planned!” Hughes said.
For white wine drinkers, Chomak recommends any medium-bodied type with bright acidity, as it will cut through the richness of the Thanksgiving feast.
This Provençale varietal picks up the sage and oregano in Thanksgiving turkey recipes. Chomak told The Standard that a Bandol offers “more layered complexity than your typical rosé, and even a little herbal characteristic.”
When the bird lands, it’s best to go big and bold with a classic chianti. Hughes recommends Fiasco, an organic bottle made with Sangiovese grapes at high altitude for a full-bodied, rich tannic finish that will stand up to gravy-laden turkey and rich side dishes. “Bonus points for coming in a liter size!” said Hughes.
Though D&M’s Kennel encourages hosts not to be tied to a particular pairing, there are certain “third rails” to avoid at Thanksgiving. “A big Napa cab is not too good with turkey” so he recommends moving to a pinot. Kennel likes Sonoma’s BloodRoot and Mendocino’s Trail Marker, both light and pretty, with a nose of cherry and raspberry. “But if a big cab makes your aunt happy, do what you want to do!”
For something a bit different, this nearly extinct orange wine from Kakheti is bone dry with notes of apricot, white flowers and a bright scotch-like and black tea tannic finish. Hughes calls it “the perfect palate cleanser” between bites of sweet potato and stuffing.
Need more wine? Get in touch with the experts interviewed for this story.
Check out The Standard's 2022 Thanksgiving Guide to find new ideas on everything from where to buy takeout turkey and unique pies, to where to volunteer and stroll off your feast.
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