The Unsung Heroes of the Thanksgiving Table

Mark Rashap, CWE, offers up some Thanksgiving wine pairing recommendations that will take you beyond the typical Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and California Zinfandel.

This time of year, I am bombarded with requests for recommendations of what to serve at the Thanksgiving table. Most likely this year, as in years past, much of the US will be serving the classics for turkey such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and California Zinfandel. However, I’d like to highlight a few of the unsung and misunderstood heroes of Thanksgiving pairings, and dispel a few wide-sweeping fallacies of the wine world. I may as well say it in the first paragraph - I won’t be mentioning Champagne, because no matter what you do, you should always have Champagne before, during, and after the meal (I may or may not be exaggerating).

Let’s first discuss a few of the basics of why we pair certain wines with this epic meal. Turkey does not have a lot of animal fat; therefore, we strive for a red that is lighter in tannin or a white that’s fuller in body. On top of the meat, we heap generous amounts of gravy, mashed potatoes, and stuffing - all of which are rich in butter and starch. These characteristics call for wines with above average acidity in order to cut through the butter and freshen up our palate from the drying effect of starch, thus the phrase “mouth-watering acidity!” Finally, there is a panoply of veggies, often also doused in butter, and the epically challenging cranberry sauce. Again, we look to acid and wines that have a savory spice component, such as thyme and herbs de Provence. Additionally, tart cherry and red fruit components create incredible flavor bridges and contrasts.

The first misunderstood wine that hits all these points is Beaujolais, but I’m not recommending ordinary Beaujolais (or the labels that come out on the 3rd Thursday of November called Nouveau). I’m talking about the 10 villages that are situated in the north of the region on the best soils for the grape Gamay and crowned Cru Beaujolais. While Nouveau can be fun to taste for a sense of this year’s harvest because these wines are the first to be released, they go through a fermentation process called Carbonic Maceration, which inevitably take on a bubblegum and medicinal quality. Cru Beaujolais are often punched down like their northern neighbor of Burgundy and ageing in oak barrels. These wines fit the bill for turkey and cranberry sauce with their bright red fruit, tart cherry, and a subtle herbaceous quality. While my favorite of the 10 villages is typically the cru Moulin-a-Vent, this year my favorite wine has been from Régnié from the producer Charly Thévenet. Another reason to check these wines out is that the current vintages of 2015 some of those from 2016 are some of the best vintages the region has seen in a long time back to back.

In the white wine camp, I’ll drink white Burgundy and Riesling all night, but I want to mention the utmost pleasures of Chenin Blanc. Chenin, just like Riesling, can be a bit of a gamble as far as sweetness goes. Often the acclaimed wines of Vouvray, Montluis-sur-Loire, or Anjou Blanc can be slightly off-dry. This can be very desirable with the cranberry sauce or if your family spices up some of the dishes with jalapeños. However, I see most people searching for dry versions, of which the epitome for Chenin is from a tiny village in the Loire called Savennières. Actually, a map of all the vineyards of this region has a permanent home on my desk; it comforts me (what a dork!). These wines have an energy and complexity that will make you wonder why you’re enjoying the company of your mother-in-law. I’ll also give a huge plug for South African Chenin Blanc, almost all are bone dry. For me, this is one of the most interesting things coming out of South Africa. One of the producers leading the charge on this grape is Raats; most commonly found is his stainless steel version, but if you can find the barrel fermented top tier, it is worth every penny!

Finally, there’s the value option. If you’re the only wine lover at the table and know that you’ll only get one sip, you might want something not too expensive, but still elevates the meal. I almost always default to Côtes du Rhône. Grenache, which mostly comprises the lions share of the blend, is thought of as warm-weather or poor man’s Pinot Noir. In fact, Grenache was historically trucked up to Burgundy to fraudulently beef up the insipid pinots. Medium-bodied with the perfect tannin structure to go with poultry. While the acid is not as ideal as Burgundy and Beaujolais, it’s got the red cherry and savory spice that we’ve been looking for, and can be tremendous quality for the price. Mourchon is always a favorite, which can be found readily in Austin, as well as the St. Cosme, though this producer relies on Syrah as the dominant grape.

I wish everybody the happiest and healthiest of holidays. Hopefully, wine brings family together and buffers awkward conversation. Try something new this year and appreciate all the treasures the world has to offer while blocking out all the hate and anxiety. That’s what I strive for every time I stick my nose in a wine glass.