How to Choose Wine for a Holiday Meal

Roast turkey is the centerpiece of the classic Thanksgiving feast, but we all know the real show stoppers are the sides. It’s also the sides that complicate things, weaving a complex array of savory and sweet. Is the palate of the meal more about herbal, nutty flavors and heirloom/wild turkey, or is it about bread stuffing, brown sugar glaze and kid-friendly cranberry sauce?

Both white and red wines can pair well if they fall into the middle ground of being neither too light and crisp, nor too heavy and oaky, and not bone-dry but certainly not sweet. In general, wines that work reliably are fruit-forward. Yet there are many unique and overlooked options that do justice to the cornucopia being served, like dry whites from upstate or fresh French reds. And of course, just like Aunt Marge’s mystery stuffing (featuring stewed prunes this year?), there’s always a wildcard that winds up on the table.

White Wines

A dry to off-dry riesling is always a good choice and there are many from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York that offer consistent quality, such as Hermann J. Wiemer, Fox Run and Sheldrake Point. German and Alsace rieslings have a distinctive flavor profile, but be careful: it can be tricky to gauge sweetness level by the label. French sauvignon blancs are really nice if the meal features sautéed greens, earthy grains, wild rice and mushrooms, or briny oyster stuffing. Chardonnays can vary—definitely avoid the more oaky or tropical ones usually from California and other warm climates. Same with Australia and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, they tend to be too citric and grassy for a heavy meal.

Red Wines

For something unique, Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton makes a number of imaginative blends from European grape varieties, including a few that are quite rare in the US. Their vineyards include plantings of blaufränkisch, dornfelder, teroldego, refosco, syrah and lagrein, and the wines are all done by hand in small batches. The 2011 Sculpture Garden is a true field blend, which means the different varieties actually grow amongst each other. The 2013 Due Uve is a pairing of 58% syrah and 42% dornfelder, stomped by foot and fermented together.

Beaujolais Nouveau are medium-bodied, soft reds made from the gamay grape and are released with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November every year. This year’s are the first reds from the excellent 2015 French harvest. Pinot noirs from Oregon, Washington, Burgundy and the Loire (such as Bouchard Pére & Fils Reserve Bourgogne) are also good choices. Other medium-bodied, juicy reds include Long Island merlots and cabernet francs.

The Wildcard

A great conversation starter that will tickle wine aficionados is orange wine, an ancient style that’s enjoying a revival. “White” grape varieties, when ripe, are green, yellow, golden-brown, orange or even rusty pink. For white wine though, only the clear juice is fermented and receives no contact with the grape skins. When juice and crushed skins are allowed to macerate (soak) like with rosé, or ferment together like a typical red, the skins lend color and flavors to the finished product. Orange wines derive from white wine grapes that are given the red wine treatment and macerated with skins.

Brooklyn Oenology, an innovative label/wine bar owned by winemaker Alie Shaper, based in Williamsburg and the North Fork, just released its latest orange wine, the 2013 Broken Land. It’s a blend of 52% gewürztraminer and 48% pinot gris, both of which are coppery-mauve when ripe. The grapes are gently crushed, fermented and allowed an extra two weeks of skin contact to yield a deep amber color, then aged for nine months in neutral barrels. It’s complex: there are floral aromas of white rose and honeysuckle, and flavors of apricot, pecan, mandarin orange, tea and even a hint of ginger. Yet it’s dry, with a touch of tannins, which makes it a good turkey wine.

HOT TIP #62: Drink Responsibly
Warm-climate wines from places like California or Spain often have high alcohol content, up to 14%. These may be too strong for a long meal that involves a few glasses of wine—read the labels. Lower alcohol wines mean that guests can have one more glass without fear.