The Noble Writ: The Truth About Wine and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving increases interest in food and wine pairings. Since I have fun experimenting with combinations of wine and food, I generally enjoy the conversations I have with friends and family looking to step out and try something different.

However, a significant number of conversations I have about Thanksgiving and wine are dripping with anxiety. Much comes from people on a quixotic quest for a meal of Rockwellian nostalgia, filtered through lens of Martha Stewartesque perfection. For these folks, I have learned to make only the most general of recommendations and then shamelessly pawn them off on our town's better wine merchants.

The other common Thanksgiving pressure point seems to be the guests. Frequently, it is in-laws or, even more anxiety provoking, in-laws to-be. Usually, one of the guests is into wine, and the person seeking input is not. In these instances, I advise finding out what sort of wine the guest likes and then getting something similar. Even if it doesn't work so well with the dinner, it's likely to make a positive impression on the special guest.

click to enlarge Eat this, and you might as well drink Thunderbird. - User "Shadle," Wikimedia Commons
Eat this, and you might as well drink Thunderbird.
But here is the ugly truth about the traditional Thanksgiving dinner: It's just not very wine-friendly. Now, when I use the term "traditional Thanksgiving dinner," I'm referring to the one a lot of us face: roast turkey (of varying degrees of over-doneness); mashed potatoes; a sweetened sweet-potato or yam dish; cranberry something or other; and stuffing. The problem doesn't come from the turkey or mashed potatoes or stuffing, as these are generally very flexible foods -- avoid too much alcohol and too much oak, and just about any wine will work. Instead, it's the sweetness of sweet potatoes/yams and the sourness of cranberry dishes that wreak havoc with wine.

These dishes have very dramatic and very different impacts on the palate's perception of a wine. Sweet dishes make a wine taste less sweet, which is the genesis of the useful rule that a dessert wine needs to be at least as sweet as the dish it accompanies. However, when it comes to table wines nothing is going to handle great-grandma's recipe for yams glazed with maple syrup and topped with mini-marshmallows. Instead, anything with significant sweetness is going to make your wine taste thin and sour. While you could try drinking an off-dry wine, like a fine German Spatlese or Auslese-level riesling, I find that drinking these wines over the course of an entire dinner wears thin quickly -- and that's from someone who loves these wines. You're also likely to run into significant prejudice from those of the mind that sweetness in a wine equates with poor quality.

Cranberry dishes have an equally discombobulating effect on the palate. This time it's in the opposite direction: The wine tastes flat and hollow, and any tannic bitterness it might have is amplified. Minimization is really the only hope here. Think of cranberry more as a condiment than as a dish, and you'll be able to squeak by with a palate-cleansing bite of bread or mashed potato and a sip of water before going back to your wine. If you get both the cranberry and sweet potato dishes going, your palate soon becomes so overwhelmed that any hope of the wine being more than an alcohol-delivery device fades into oblivion.

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