America has come a long way since the days of jug wine, cheap, tasteless beer, and sweet sparkling "champagne." I can remember, from my own childhood, holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas usually meant that the adults drank Cold Duck and Asti Spumante. For those of you too young to remember, Cold Duck was a sweet sparkling red wine that was often used as an inexpensive celebratory beverage. It was popular throughout the mid century but started to lose its appeal as American wine producers started to make affordable, quality wines and sparkling wines. We have indeed come a long way from those days, but when it comes to Thanksgiving many people are confused about what to serve due to the myriad of flavors that grace most traditional Thanksgiving groaning boards. Which is better to serve red wine or white wine? Does champagne actually go with all those flavors on the Thanksgiving table? What about beer or other beverages?
The simple answer is, "Serve what you and your guests enjoy." When I was in my first year of culinary school we had a wonderful, older French woman teaching our introductory wine class. I learned a lot from her, but the one thing I remember most clearly is her advice to drink what we enjoyed. It didn't matter if other people liked it or if the general consensus was that a certain wine didn't go with a certain food, what ultimately mattered is whether you enjoyed it or not. So this is my suggestion to you, "Drink what you like, and don't get bogged down on whether it's the perfect pairing for your holiday dinner." But let's face facts, some beverages are better compliments to certain foods than others and you are probably reading this article because you want some insight into which beverages make a better pairing for Thanksgiving.
Let's start off with Champagne and sparkling wines as these are true celebratory drinks that will be gracing many a holiday table this year. Gone are the days of offering Asti Spumante or Cook's to your guests, but you needn't go broke either. There are plenty of wonderful champagnes and sparkling wines (only sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France should be called Champagne) out there at very reasonable prices.
Perrier-Jouet "Grand Brut" NV and Moet & Chandon "White Star" NV are both wonderful champagnes that perfectly complement the foods of Thanksgiving while still costing under $50 a bottle. If you are looking to splurge a little then check out the Billecart-Salmon "Rose" NV, one of my favorite champagnes. Its flavors of red berries, citrus and bread dough make it the perfect fit for the holiday table. At around $100 a bottle I feel it is quite a deal.
Then there is the decision about wine. Which is better to serve with Thanksgiving dinner, red or white? The answer is neither. There are both red and white wines that pair wonderfully with your holiday spread. Your best bet is to offer both a red and white, allowing your guests to choose whichever they prefer. For reds, the most popular choice, in recent years has been Pinot Noir, and with good reason. It is light enough to not overpower the turkey but still has enough backbone to stand up to some of the strong dishes of Thanksgiving such as the cranberry relish. Choose an American Pinot Noir if you are looking for something that has a little fruit to balance the earthiness or turn to the Pinots of Burgundy if you prefer the mineral and earthy flavors of some of the world's greatest wines. The Pinots from Schug winery in Carneros have always been some of my favorites. Other reds that would make a good pairing for Thanksgiving include merlot, Syrah/Shiraz (I prefer the Syrahs of the Rhone Valley in France), Zinfandel (though look for ones not so high in alcohol) and Beaujolais, especially the Beaujolais Nouveau which is released the week before Thanksgiving. This light, fruity red is easily drinkable and is subtle enough to pair with everything on the dinner table.
While the important thing in choosing a red wine is choosing one that won't overpower the food, the opposite is true for white wines. Overly light or subtle whites will be easily overpowered by the autumnal flavors of many traditional Thanksgiving dishes. My favorites to pair with Thanksgiving are Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. It used to be the case that many American Rieslings were pretty sweet wines. We've come a ways since those days and now most producers are creating lovely, dry Rieslings with hints of green apple and a nice acidity. Fess Parker Santa Barbara County is good example of what American winemakers are doing with Riesling nowadays. If looking for a German Riesling look for the "Kabinet" listing on the label which will let you know that it is a dryer style of Riesling.
Sauvignon Blanc is another one of those wines that see quite a change between the US and France. In France, these wines tend towards the herbal, and flinty though they still show essences of apricot and citrus. In the US many Sauvignon Blancs have a tart acidity with strong flavors of apricot, grapefruit, and honeydew while the herbal and mineral essences take the background. If you are looking for an import, choose a wine from the Loire Valley or the Languedoc regions of France for a classic example of Old World Sauvignon Blancs. If looking for an American wine choose Grgich Hills Fume Blanc for a great wine done in the French style or choose a Sauvignon Blanc from Sterling for a more fruit forward, American style.
When it comes to beers, what really counts is a rich maltiness to complement the autumn foods that grace our Thanksgiving tables. Hop bitterness should be kept in check, though a bit of bitterness will help cut through all the rich foods and help aid digestion. My choices for beer would include Belgian Saisons. These complex beers work well with the many flavors gracing our holiday tables. English and American Pale Ales are lighter and crisp, helping to cut through many of the rich, heavy dishes often served, but stay away from IPAs (India Pale Ales) as the hop level in many versions of this beer can easily overpower many of the dishes. Brown ales, Octoberfests, and Marzenbiers are also great choices due to their sweet maltiness that seems to go so well with the flavors of Thanksgiving.
I have one final recommendation, and that is cider. I'm not talking about the sweet drink you find at local apple orchards (though that would be a wonderful beverage to); I'm talking about hard cider. In the early years of this country, hard cider was one of the most popular beverages, but over the years its popularity has waned and at one point hard cider almost disappeared completely. Many of today's ciders, such as Woodchuck, tend to be on the sweet side, but if that is not your thing then check out Blackthorne, from England or one of the finer ciders produced by West County Cider, in Massachusetts.
I hope I have given you a few ideas for what to serve this Thanksgiving. I always encourage you to speak with your local wine merchant as he/she will know what they have in stock and what is available. Hopefully this article has given you an idea of what to look for when shopping for your Thanksgiving beverages, but again, remember to drink what you enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving!