A recent survey of my friends and relations revealed that their current go-to wines for Thanksgiving dinner are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The first choice is solid ― possibly brilliant: A high-acid, low-tannin Pinot, with bright cherry and cranberry flavors over rich spices, can do right by almost all the exuberant side dishes a turkey requires.
The second choice, though, is a puzzler, at least if it's a buttery, oaky Chardonnay.
Normally I would defend the "I'll drink what I like no matter what's on the table" approach on principle; you're sure to enjoy at least part of the experience that way. But the trouble with applying it to Thanksgiving is that there's just so much on the table ― herby gravy, tangy cranberry sauce, savory dressing.... And sweet potatoes are, well, sweet, even without marshmallows. All of that will kill an oaky Chard, even if it could stand tall with bare turkey.
"Chardonnay would be the last wine I would think of for Thanksgiving dinner," confirms Shayn Bjornholm, wine director of Seattle's Canlis restaurant, and the sole Master Sommelier in the state of Washington. (Pinot would be his first choice.)
"Super-dry wines can die in the presence of all that fruit, sugar, and salt," he goes on. "White wines with a little residual sugar can be your friend." Reds he considers harder to pair, because most are dry. But white or red, it needs to be fruity.
Tysan Pierce, sommelier at the HerbFarm in Woodinville, outside Seattle, lives by the high-acid rule on Thanksgiving: "You want a wine with a decent whack of acidity, to cleanse your mouth from that battery of flavors." A touch of sweetness is a good thing in her book too.
Between the two of them, Bjornholm and Pierce reel off a list of wines from all over the world that they know are good partners for Thanksgiving food ― Austrian Grüner Veltliner, German Riesling, southern French Grenache blends...
Given the tradition of the day, though, it seems like the wines for this table should come from American makers. The West-grown varieties the sommeliers like for Thanksgiving ― beyond Pinot Noir ― are sparklers (the most versatile pour of all, with bubbles carrying all that acidity and underlying fruit), Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Grenache-based blends, or Zinfandel.
About that Zinfandel, though ― Bjornholm and Pierce both advise against high-alcohol versions. Many are creeping up to 15, 16 percent these days. "Too much alcohol, and before you know it, you've said something that results in your sister not talking to you for years," Bjornholm warns. Pierce is more practical: "Turkey already has all that tryptophan that makes you sleepy. Drink an alcohol bomb and you'll make friends with the carpet way too fast."
Above all, for your family at Thanksgiving, the wines shouldn't be intimidating. This isn't the time to pull out an esoteric bottle calculated to impress. Better to bring out something familiar, yummy, and, and as Pierce puts it, "whimsical enough that your dotty Aunt Kathy will appreciate it, but thoughtful enough that anyone who really loves wine will be satisfied."
Here are some sensational versions of the Thanksgiving wines recommended by Bjornholm and Pierce.
Mirabelle Brut by Schramsberg, nonvintage (California; $19). Schramsberg was one of the first sparkling-wine makers in California, and is still one of the best. Mirabelle, the "little sister" of its more expensive bottles, is terrific for the price.
Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen "Eroica" Riesling (Columbia Valley, WA; $22). A partnership between one of Washington's largest wineries and one of Germany's most famous vintners results in the best Riesling in the state.
Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Gewürztraminer (Sonoma Valley; $22). Long and lush, with beautiful hints of rose petals, spices, gingerbread, and litchis.
Runquist Massoni Ranch Zinfandel (Amador County, CA; $22). Liquid jam, with beautifully ripe blackberry and black cherry flavors and a silky texture.
Morgan Grenache/Syrah (Monterey, CA; $14). Full of wild violets, black licorice, cherry jam, dark chocolate, and espresso. If your turkey is boldly seasoned, this is the red to match.