Monday Morning Holiday Wine Quarterback


If you were one of many anxious Thanksgiving dinner hosts wading through the thousands of social media posts, hundreds of retail ads, and scores of articles or blogposts about the right wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner, how did that work out for you?  Did you get props for ultimate pairings?  Was the research and planning enough for guests to acknowledge or pay tribute to your wine service?  Or, were you and your guests underwhelmed, disappointed, or simply indifferent to the role wine played in the holiday meal? Get out the game day films now while they are fresh in your mind.

wine and smoked turkey

Whatever the observations are, it is worth writing down what went right, wrong, and what  you would do differently next time. I did, and tucked them away for Christmas and next year’s Thanksgiving meal. That simple note, my own cheat sheet, will serve like a loyal wine pairing sherpa deep into future holiday seasons.  While we shouldn’t wag a finger at wine geeks finding sport in the peripatetic pursuit of holiday wine pairing’s holy grail, life can be simpler just remembering what happened at the most recent holiday table.

Beware, wine writers are not wasting any time luring us down a familiar road; already professing what you should be pouring for your friends and family this coming Christmas and New Year.  I just published one of those holiday wine pairing missives myself, featuring a bunch of wine media links and my own choices.  But, what I learned at this year’s holiday table will serve as perpetual guidance.

Five Holiday Wine Pairing Lessons

  1. Sparkling: Start with simple sparkling rosé wine with a first course.  We had rich pumpkin soup and the bubbly crispness of the Spanish Txakolina rosé worked quite well.  Low in alcohol, our salmon colored sparkler was a noticeable and celebratory way to excite guests and get them sitting up in their chairs.  It will be an able crowd pleaser with any first plate, so long as it is not sweet.  Wake up the tastebuds and produce cravings for more food!
  2. Residual Sugar and White Wine: Our 2005 demi-sec Chenin Blanc from Huet provided enough sweetness and acidic verve to carry us through creamy mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, and a sausage stuffing that included sweet dried cranberries.  It was the wine of the evening, a classy wine that is flexible in ways that never hide its awesomeness.  Always serve a dem-sec Chenin, dry styled Spatlese or Auslese Rieslings with just enough residual sugar, or mildly sweet Gewurtztraminer. Note to self: “these wines are enough to carry you through the entire meal. So many beautiful food friendly white wines exist and you drink more white than red all year long now.  Is a red really necessary?”
  3. Top Wines From  Blind Tastings Are Unreliable:  We just held a blind tasting of Sicilian wines and I added the winner as a late meal entry; Graci Etna Rosso.  I thought it would work really well with our smoked turkey.  The wine did not perform next to the powerful and varied tastes on the table. Thanksgiving meals are indeed wine pairing traps. Don’t risk adding a wine just because it showed well in other contexts.  Stick with the four other tips on this list (See Steve Heimoff’s reaction to a similar Thanksgiving experience with a venerable Cabernet).
  4. Lose the Tannins:  No matter how much smoky, bright red fruit wines with noticeable tannins might feel appropriate with a slow cooked smoked turkey, don’t forget about the cranberry sauce and fruit ingredients that will be a sweet wrecker of otherwise perfectly delicious wines. Our red wine was annoying with a meal infused with sweet fruit.  I wanted more luscious, mildly sweet, and acidic Chenin Blanc.
  5. Color: Think about the color of the food, table settings, and wines. Not just red and white. I surprised myself adding this to my cheat sheet, but the palette of colors that our wines produced paired with food coloring and table sets that were completely noticeable. Color coordination was unplanned, yet it created a soothing and designed effect.  Color is not to be underestimated in setting a serene and relaxed mood around the table.  I could not stop noticing how beautiful the wines looked in twenty glasses spread around the table.  It made a special contribution to the meal’s profile.

Wine Palette

 Hopefully, I won’t attempt to outsmart myself this Christmas and and will pay attention to my new simple cheat sheet.  What did you learn about wine service this year at your own Thanksgiving table?

  • Richard Auffrey

    Though it is not a new lesson for me, one of the most important things I note every holiday is that very few of the guests, and sometimes just me, care about the wine pairings. The guests will usually drink whatever I decide to pour, and they rarely care how it pairs with the food. If I pour a delicious wine, that is basically all my guests care about. Over thinking wine pairings at these holidays is often a waste of time. It certainly depends on who is at your table, but average people generally don’t care.

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  • Todd Trzaskos

    Your fair and honest analysis of the event, follows the equally cogent and sensible coaching session you provided, prior to game day. Too often we spend far more energy in preparation, than in the enjoyment or the reflection. Thanks for the reminder.

    The lesson I learned this year, was trust your own judgement and don’t listen to the scouting report. I was told that there were only going to be 26 people, many who were not wine drinkers, or any kind of drinker for that matter, and because a few people had already offered to bring wine, I was supposed to be off the hook. Still, I wanted to be somewhat prepared, at least to enjoy wines I wanted to drink. I brought a magnum of Herman Wiemer 2009 Riesling and a 3L box of “From the Tank” Rouge ( no joke, it’s from Jenny & Francois, and delish ).

    We got annihilated.
    The other team was populated by real animals. A couple of Rex Goliath the roosters, and a little Australian penguin with that damn kangaroo and their funny game rules. Our starters couldn’t hold off the onslaught, and we had no one on the bench. I had opened the magnum, poured a small taste for myself, and then passed it to the two folks I knew would be glad to receive it. Four and a half minutes later, I returned to the bottle and found barely enough to squeeze out a serving, while I saw several teetotalers at the other end of the field were tipping back the rest with great enjoyment. It was like I fell for the limp-gambit and had thrown a bunch of stemware interceptions. The box of baby Cotes Du Rhone put up a valiant defense but the repeated attacks drained it’s ability to respond effectively, and it had to be retired at lunch the next day.

    After a number of winning appearances in past years, it was a bit of a downer. The fans did not really seem to notice, and had a great time, but I’m still going to have to review the playbook for next year.

  • Brad Smith

    Beautifully observed. I’ll be brief. Cheap Cava (1+1=3) to start. Just the ticket. No discussion just bubbly tasty fruity festive with a touch of fresh yeast bread. A large assortment of crowd pleasers with appetizers and football — 2009, 2001 and one 1996 Napa cabs, 2005 Bordeaux, 2009 white Burg, 2011 Napa Chard — all mid-high end (it’s Thanksgiving for God’s sake, splurge!) I knew Riesling would work with the turkey and cranberry sauce and creamed onions and sweet potato souffle and it performed magnificently. 2005 JJ Prum Graacher Himmelreich Auslese. But a close second was the 1999 Beaucastel CDP. Needed decanting of course to dissipate the Rhone barnyard trapped inside for 14 years but soon expressed the good side of Brett, the minerality of the galets and the black tea and lavender scent of the Provence sunshine, all in a deep baked fruit core. Big hit except for someone who attempted to smell it too soon. Third was the 2007 Vinum Natura organic unoaked Bordeaux. Keys on what Adam says about lose the tannins. Finally, 1988 Rieussec and 1990 Baumard Quarts du Chaume with the pies, the latter especially heavenly. Lessons? Drink really good wine, have plenty of bottles open, poor short until you find what works for you, then go wild.

  • awjapko

    Brad, what a line up! Clearly, I was not at the right Thanksgiving day meal! Sounds like you either had a large crowd of very satisfied wine geeks or a small group of very tipsy holiday revelers. Did you have anything sweet on the table alongside the turkey that challenged the beauty of the Beaucastel?

  • awjapko

    Todd, so funny. That box Cote du Rhone from Jenny & Francois catches my attention. Real wine for real every day drinking. I like that. Thanks for sharing your game day films!

  • awjapko

    Rich, right on. It makes sense to process the wine menu through your own biases. But even with that, I will make a mistake or two, and while I know it, others that know less about wine at the table probably quietly know something is amiss too.

  • Brad Smith

    Ha! Your line-up was mighty fine! We had 20 people; all but two appreciate fine wine, especially the 20-somethings. I alternated between the Riesling and Chateauneuf, with two glasses going.

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