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.
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
- 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!
- 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?”
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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?