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Red Wines for Thanksgiving

Carving turkeyThe maple trees in my Vancouver, B.C. neighborhood have been a blaze of red and yellow. Mornings shrouded in fog merely intensify their fiery brilliance. There’s a briny bite to the air. When the fog lifts to reveal a sunny afternoon, it’s time to head out for a brisk walk. I love this time of year.

Canadian Thanksgiving lands on the second Monday in October—smack in the middle of all this autumn glory. It augurs a season of oven-simmered soups and stews, slow roasted meats,…and gutsy, and sometimes, not so gutsy red wines. Because our holiday falls weeks before our neighbors’ to the south, I can give U.S. readers a heads up on what they might drink with the Thanksgiving feast.

Roast turkey is on just about everyone’s mind and menu for American Thanksgiving and very possibly for Christmas. But what about the wine? With white meat, dark meat and all those trimmings–herb-laced stuffings, roasted root veggies, Brussels sprouts, yams, mash potatoes and gravy, casseroles and cranberry sauce–what to choose? Luckily, the feast can take on a variety of wines–red, white and even bubbly. But I’m honing in on red.

Side Dishes Govern Wine

There is one rule of thumb. Don’t bring out the heavy hitters. That means big California Cabernets, bold Australian Shirazes and beefy Argentine Malbecs. Better to save those blockbusters for robust beef and lamb dishes. It’s really the side dishes, not the bird, that govern the wine(s) at Thanksgiving. Sturdy tannins and considerable fruit can overwhelm. A wine with tame tannins and a fresh fruitiness is better suited. Pinot Noir or a lighter Zinfandelwith its hint of spice is a better choice.

Red wine

Red wines that aren’t overly assertive work well with traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Photo Bobbie Hasselbring.

One of my favorite pairings for turkey and all the add-ons is a silky Burgundian (France) Pinot Noir with lots of mushroom-and-forest floor smells and earth-and-cherry/raspberry flavors. For informality, I like to rally folks around Beaujolais. Beaujolais is also part of Burgundy, but like Burgundy, it’s also the name of the wine. American Thanksgiving nudges up to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, which occurs the third Thursday of November. This party wine pairs with the meal and its awfully good fun.

Ironically, the All-American feast loves European reds. Tempranillo is little heard of among many wine consumers. Yet the signature grape of Spain offers a fine addition to the Thanksgiving table, tending toward the piquant and bright plummy fruit. (If you want to fly the Stars and Stripes on Thanksgiving, look to Southern Oregon, whose winegrowers have recently been turning out some pretty impressive Tempranillo.)

Grenache is the backbone of Cotes du Rhone, always a crowd pleaser at the Thanksgiving and Christmas table. (Other varietals that go into Cotes du Rhone Rhone blend are syrah and mourvedre.) It loves roasted root vegetables and a stuffing generous with herbs because the wine itself often smacks of dried herbs and white pepper. If you’re trading up to duck, pheasant or other game fowl, you can go right for Chateauneuf du Pape, the epitome of Southern Rhone wine.

Two wines

Cote du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape are perfect with duck, pheasant or other game fowl.

I rarely can have a festive meal without a few Italians. Italian wines possess a lively acidity that sets your palate up for that next bite. And from North to South, the “boot” offers a wide selection of wines from which to choose.

To name just a few(from north to south):

From Piedmont, Barbera d’Alba’s high natural acidity cuts across the tongue with hints of cherry and raspberry. It is a great match for the meal. From the Veneto, you’ve got Valpolicella. Best to go for a Valpolicella Ripasso, with a little more structure and complexity and an agreeable bitter cherry note. Hint: Valpolicella with turkey pot pie is delicious!

Then there is Sangiovese, the grape synonymous with Chianti. And there are so many styles and many Chiantis. But a good Chianti Classico will show off floral, licorice, and dry (again) cherry that spans the flavors of the table.

Sicily has really come on board of late. The “stone’s” best known grape is Nero d’Avola followed perhaps by Nerello Mascalese. Sicilian wines are soft and plummy—a decent and different deliciousness with the bird.

Three wines

Italian Valpolicellas are a great choice for Turkey Day dishes.

If going the Italian route, toss a few Italian sausages or pancetta, and/or porcini mushrooms into the stuffing and swap out the sage for oregano, basil and garlic. Believe me it’s yummy.

Today, I noticed the leaves were losing color. They flitted to the sidewalk, and the weather turned to rain. No worries. I like walking in the rain and I have Christmas to mull over. In the meantime I can still enjoy those turkey wines with hearty soups, slow braises, roasts, or merely sip with bread and a crumbly cheese by the fire….

Happy turkey day!—Julie Pegg, RFT Wine & Spirits Editor

Turkey photo courtesy of Nathan Brescia, WikiCommons.


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Julie Pegg, Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop. Julie is RFT’s Senior Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada.