Basic Holiday Wine Pairing

7 things to consider before you buy


Thanksgiving is upon us and so begins the great culinary chase! We go through this every year, trying to chase down the perfect wine pairings for our menus. Searching for the latest, greatest holiday wine. Is it Lambrusco or Oregon Pinot this year? Or are you so Avant-garde that you’ve already moved onto to German Pinot Noir?

It’s time to take a step back and revisit the basics of food and wine pairing. Remember that while the best sommeliers and retailers are constantly trying to find an angle, you already know a lot about what food and wine pairings work for you! Sticking with the basic steps to food and wine pairing (I’m not going to call them rules) can help you tweak what you know, and know what to tweak when it comes to all those suggestions.

This article is the first chapter from Fine Cooking's new Thanksgiving Day Guide, with expert wine pairings from Snooth. Make sure to download the enitre guide on Snooth, full of menus, wine suggestions, shopping lists and helpful hints that will make your Thanksgiving flawless.

Photo courtesy Martin Cathrae via Flickr/CC

It’s Not About the Bird

Step #1 - While turkey is the center of the Thanksgiving meal, it is far from the most important element. In general, you should be pairing wines to the most intense elements of a menu in terms of sweet, sour, salt, or bitterness. Turkey is a lovely bird, but one of its greatest assets is its mild flavor and the fact that a single bird can feed an army with leftovers to boot!

Photo courtesy revrev via Flickr/CC

The Elements of the Meal

So what are the most important elements of any meal then? Sauces pretty much top the list, though with a traditional meal like Thanksgiving, you can also identify themes for the menu. For example, is your menu sweet with lots of yams, marshmallows and cranberries? Or is it more on the savory side with bacon, herbs, and garlic playing leading roles?

Once you decide on which side of the sweet/savory line your meal falls, you can begin to narrow down the wines that will work with that style of meal. Now it’s time to take a look at step #2.

Photo courtesy The Vault DFW via Flickr/CC

Feel the Wine

Step #2 - Try to pair the intensity of your wine with the intensity of your menu. Big bold flavors need a big bold wine to stand up to them. Subtle, refined flavors likewise pair best with a subtle, refined wine that won’t obscure your culinary delights.

Photo courtesy smcgee via Flickr/CC

Cast the Characters

Step #3 - In general, it’s a good idea to pair complex meals with simple wines, and complex wines with simple meals. It’s really a matter of deciding who is going to get top billing. You don’t want your star to get upstaged, now do you? So with all the flavors going on with many Thanksgiving meals, not to mention all the palates you’ll be bringing around the table, it’s a good idea to try and keep things simple, wine wise, during the holidays.

This can be a very difficult idea to fully wrap one’s head around, that a less expensive wine might be more appropriate than a more expensive wine, but get used to saving some money!

Photo courtesy wolfsavard via Flickr/CC

The Geek Step

Step #4 is the geek step. You can skip this if you’d like, but this is where we get to geek out a bit. There are two basic food and wine flavor-pairing principles worth exploring here: compliment and contrast. Do you want your wine to support the flavors of your dish? In this case, the dish is going to be the star. Or, are you interested in the potential of contrasting flavors that will make the pairing itself the star? It’s a tough decision to make.

You can reach for an herbal wine to compliment your herb-infused dish, or you can grab a fruity wine to offer a distinct contrast to the savory, aromatic notes of those herbs. What works and what doesn’t is of course totally subjective, but a warning is in order. In my experience, it’s much more difficult to mess up a complimentary pairing, though the best pairings do tend to be contrasting. Decisions, decisions! For Thanksgiving, I’ve pretty much given up on geeking out since I share in a lot of the cooking responsibilities and rarely have the time to complete the geek at the table, but it is worth mentioning here.

Photo courtesy kurafire via Flickr/CC

Trust Yourself

Step #5 is to consider everything you’ve already considered, and then buy what you like. Really, that’s the best way to make sure that you end up with a wine pairing that you will like. Rules are meant to be broken anyway!

So just to recap:

1: Figure out what your menu is going to look and taste like.
2: Pick a type of wine that you like and you think will pair well with your menu.
3: Match the intensity and complexity of your menu with a specific wine.
3a: Don’t overpay, particularly if you’re sharing.
4: Get your geek on.
5: Make your final decision based on wines you know you like.
6: Buy enough (#3a makes that easier).
7: Don’t worry about things, kick back and have a great holiday!

Photo courtesy _heycarsten via Flickr/CC

Want to Learn More?

Check out which wines to pair with your pizza when you are in a time crunch this holiday!

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  • Snooth User: RLBennett
    227404 5

    Had the 2010 Llai Llai Pinot with Turkey last week and is was fabulous. Definitely doing Pinot on Turkey day!

    Nov 17, 2011 at 8:02 PM

  • Every year the same old topic. Turkey and Pinot Noir? Check. Redcurrant Jelly and Pinot Noir?
    Result: Pinot Noir.
    Pick your favourite and relax

    Nov 18, 2011 at 4:46 AM

  • Snooth User: whauptman
    864967 2

    Pinot with Turkey? I often have a robust Malbec from Argentina which usually works very well indeed. Depends a bit on the stuffing, but I have never been disappointed. Last year I made a large turkey and could not resist a Turkey Flat from Australia.

    Nov 18, 2011 at 6:22 AM

  • Three others that worked with Turkey were a good beaujolais villages, a Zinfandel - which underwrites whauptmans tip because I thought that Zin would be too alcoholic and tarry (even more so than Arg Malbec, like less subtle than Malbec, but it worked), and a Clos "de la something or other" from Priorat, Clos de l'Obac. We had a brilliant kiwi chardonnay one year but it kind of died with the red jelly and sweet potato; drop those and that combo would work. We found a pure shiraz was fighting with the food and didnt work
    Planning to try a Gevrey Chambertin 2007 this year, getting fed up looking at it and wanting to pull its cork.
    Turkey Flat make lovely wines that instantly taste Australian and I agree with any recommendations to drink them!

    Nov 18, 2011 at 6:59 AM

  • Snooth User: teddz
    880703 31

    Aaack! Can't believe that wines from Australia, Argentina or Burgundy would be contemplated for this uniquely North American holiday!! Sort of like going to Oktoberfest in Munich and asking for a Bud. I will start with crisp Gruet sparkling wine in Champagne's normal place (turned into a cranberry kir for family members who like things a little sweet), then have either an Easterrn nouveau or Oregon pinot with the bird (I find pinot works with all my favorite sides: cooked cranberries, oven roasted sweet potates; root vegetables). Have also gone with zins in the past, but the ripe,alcoholic versions are just too much on top of the rich food.

    Nov 18, 2011 at 10:20 AM

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