Thanksgiving wines: What to buy, how to serve—and when to break with tradition 

In October 1621, the 53 survivors of the Mayflower, along with 90 Wampanoag people, celebrated the Mayflower passengers’ first harvest in the New World with a three-day feast—what’s often called the first Thanksgiving. Sadly, they had no wine. 

I believe all the food served at that first Thanksgiving would have tasted much better with a nice glass of wine. I would have loved the opportunity to pair wines with the wild game, fowl, seafood and many vegetables that were apparently served.  

So what wine should you serve this Thanksgiving? The first question you need to ask is: Do you want to simply provide wine with your food, or pair wines to your food? If you want to just provide wine, buy some red wine and some white wine; wait for your Butterball turkey’s plastic timer to pop; and call it a day. But if you are looking to pair your wines, you should do some homework. 

Your first assignment is to determine whether you are serving courses with wine pairings, or whether the food will be served all at once, as at a buffet. If the food is served as a buffet, you will need a chameleon wine that will work with most of your food options, from green beans to sweet potatoes to turkey. If you’re serving dinner in a multi-course format, wine can be paired with each dish separately. To keep things simple, we’ll consider the served-all-at-one option. 

I spoke to Jessica Brooks, the operations manager, wine buyer and wine educator at Fourk Kitchen in Reno about her thoughts on Thanksgiving and wine.  

“When we normally think of Thanksgiving, we think of it as this big, heavy meal,” Brooks said. “However, when you break it down into the individual dishes, they tend to be a little on the lighter side and include a variety of different flavors. Most of them will touch with some sweetness. So my personal preference is to offer a good selection of wines, both red and white, to cater to different tastes.” 

That is great advice. We all have that one friend who will only drink a red or a white, no matter how hard we try to introduce them to something new.  

Brooks said: “As far as lighter reds, when you’re talking turkey, you’re thinking herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary. … Pinot noir is obviously the most popular Thanksgiving choice. With this red, it complements poultry dishes without overpowering (them). Also, it does have an herbal earthiness quality to it, which really can make your turkey shine.”  

Brooks’ own first choice for Thanksgiving is Beaujolais nouveau. “It is conveniently released the week before Thanksgiving,” she said. “It has a light body; it’s low in tannins, and it has red, juicy fruits—strawberry and cherry and raspberry. You also get these candy notes from the carbonic maceration. So it really goes well with dishes that are associated with Thanksgiving.” 

Brooks is right on point. Pinots are a good choice, as their earthiness goes so well with stuffing, mushrooms and turkey—especially if you smoke it on the grill like I do. Beaujolais nouveau is also a great choice, as it has great acidity that helps keep the gravy at bay and lets the flavors shine through.  

I am going to add a grenache here as well. Grenache has a nice acidity like a Beaujolais nouveau, earthiness like a pinot noir, and some smokiness like you might find in a syrah. 

For non-red wines, a rosé can be a great choice for the main course, with the light flavors and higher acidity working with all those great flavors. When I asked Brooks about white-wine choices, she said, “An off-dry or late-harvest Riesling can be really fun, with that high acidity that balances the sweetness. You have notes of apricot, peach, honeysuckle and orange zest. Another good choice is an off-dry gewürztraminer, and it can be a harmonious pairing. It’s highly aromatic. It has those perfumed aromas of rose and lychee, has a luscious mouthfeel—and it literally translates to ‘spice grape’ in German. It has those spice notes that work well with the clove and ginger and allspice, so I think that can be a very harmonious pairing with your candied yams, sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie.” 

Thanksgiving is a great time of year, one of the holidays when we simply celebrate each other. So open the good wine, add more whipped cream, give thanks just for being—and ignore what your aunt is saying. You know she loves you. Share an extra glass of wine with her, and make sure she knows you love her, too. 

Jessica Brooks is teaching a course at Fourk Kitcken that includes six different wines at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 15. For more information, email [email protected].