Wines for Thanksgiving: What you need to know

The greatest of all holidays is near, where we gather in America to eat and drink, converse and laugh. No presents. No major commerce push (except for incredibly affordable poultry and butter). A holiday based on the three greatest verbs: eating, drinking, and entertaining.

In year’s past I’ve done short articles outlining some ideas regarding Thanksgiving and wine, but this year you get the whole shebang. The long version. All you need to know, plus the greatest cranberry sauce recipe ever. And the most satisfying part for me is that I’m getting this to you today, with nine days before the big meal, instead of (my usual) 48 hours before! 

Okay, here we go!

The big picture – hints, and tips

1) Thanksgiving, for many of us, is an all-day affair by design. That means you have to pace yourself (lots of water) and it’s best to avoid high-octane wines that will burn your palate and your brain. Sorry, Zinfandel, you are off the table (unless it’s a lower alcohol and balanced style, ala Frog’s Leap or Birichino). Budget for a bottle to two per person, since you’ll be gathering for many hours. 

2) Wine is an accent, a minor instrument in the orchestra of the day, so while this essay is all about wine and Thanksgiving, don’t take it too seriously. The food and the guests are the real show.

3) Aim for local with your food, and even the wine. Minnesota the leading producer of turkey in the country, so the odds are in your favor that it’s a local bird, but make sure. Then add some local squash or Minnesota potatoes. Cranberries from Thoma, Wisconsin. And yes, I’m going to advocate to have one bottle of Minnesota wine on the table. More on that later.

4) Don’t mess around with The Most Important Rule of the Day (see below)

5) Thanksgiving is a perfect excuse to go through a wide range of wines from when guests arrive all the way through dessert. One bottle holds a bit over 24 ounces, so one bottle can make it around a table of 6-10 pretty easily. Hence, buy for variety and have a bit of everything available to all. (And if you’re like me, have a special bottle at your feet for yourself.)

6) Learn all about dry brining, especially if you like crisp and tasty skin on your Thanksgiving plate.


The guests arrive: Prosecco!

If you’re taken my wine classes you’ve probably heard me talk about Prosecco. It’s not for pairing with food. The cultural use of Prosecco is for starting the evening and separating the evening from the daytime. It’s clean, frothy, light, airy, and a touch sweet (though still labeled “Brut”). The result is a lip-smacking cleaning of the palate. Every guest should get a glass of Prosecco put in their hands as soon as their coat is off. Buy extra, for you can enjoy a Prosecco morning all weekend long.

White wines for the big traditional meal

Safe and reliable: Riesling 

Riesling is so great with the traditional meal. You don’t need to find the bone-dry styles (though you shouldn’t shy away from them). A German Riesling of the Kabinett level (meaning grapes were harvested just a touch underripe) is a great point to seek out, though the “QbA” level (such as Dr. L Riesling, one of the best buys in the world of wine) works great as well. These wines will often fall in the 10% alcohol range, making for lots of festive drinking without serious inebriation. The brightness and sharpness, the play of sweets to acids, make Riesling a beautiful wine for the table. Also look for New York State Rieslings, which are outstanding, tend to be drier, and have arrived in full force at better wine shops in the Twin Cities.

Exotic and aromatic (light-bodied): Gewurztraminer and Malvasia Bianca

I love Gewurztraminer, with the aromatic cornucopia that it presents, and often in a dry style. Some Gewurtz can be a bit high in alcohol, but most offer great balance and a bouquet might make you forget you have food on the plate. If you like to use a ton of herbs with your turkey, this is a great choice.

Additionally, there is a neat grape called Malvasia Bianca (look for the Birichino brand from California) that makes the most floral aroma you’ve ever smelled in a wine. If you have wine people coming over for the meal, seek this out!

Exotic and aromatic (fuller-bodied): Rhône varietals

Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne dance together in exotic and seductive ways. The Viognier adds aromatics. The Marsanne adds body. And the Rousanne adds soul. Get them together in any combination and you have a winner, especially for those that like the dark meat of the turkey smothered in gravy. There are a number of American and Australian producers that are making exceptional wines of this style. Tablas Creek from Paso Robles and d’Arenberg from McClaren Vale Australia are the ones I seek out.

Fun and unexpected: Orange wines

I’m doing this for sure this year, and to be honest I’m expecting it to be the combination of the night. Orange wines, as you probably know, are white wines made with skin contact, making for a different wine experience altogether. Aromas of desiccated apple and sandalwood combine with a bigger mouthfeel (a white wine with tannin!) that makes for an amazing glass indeed. There are many interesting Orange Wines out there right now from the Republic of Georgia, and a favorite domestically is “Skins” from Field Recordings.

Keeping it local: Minnesota wines

There will for sure be a Minnesota white and red on my table. I love the idea of keeping it local and supporting our wineries that proving what can be done here in our own state. 

Are you still a disbeliever about Minnesota wines? Some of the biggest names in the sommelier world (like, on the coasts) have been buzzing lately about Minnesota wines, due to the fact that they are NOT yet another California sunshine hedonistic fruit bomb. The local wineries near the Twin Cities are hosting upwards of SEVEN THOUSAND VISITORS A DAY on the weekends. A Minnesota wine just took double gold in the San Francisco wine competition. Neat stuff is happening.

My suggestion? Seek out a bottle of Frontenac Gris or Frontenac Blanc. If you can find them here are some great producers: Parley Lake, Schram, and Seven Vines (all of those wineries are a stone’s throw from the metro … maybe plan a getaway for this weekend?). If you find some Carlos Creek jump on it!

Red wines for the big traditional meal

The key to the red wine selections is to stay with lighter-bodied and refreshing styles. This is not the time or the place for big cabernets or zinfandels. Save those for the dark cold nights of January!

The old reliable: Pinot Noir

You can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir on the Thanksgiving table. We’re in a stretch of amazing vintages from Willamette Valley, Oregon, so take advantage of that. Throw a dart in the Oregon section of a good shop and you’ll hit something good. Personal favorites lately have been Three Otters (by Alex Fullerton), Lavinea (a bit more expensive but oh so good), and Björnson.

The exotic and unknown: the reds of Austria

In terms of pairing with the food, this is a great way to go. The three main grapes are Zweigelt, Blaufrankish, and St. Laurent. All three have their own personalities (St. Laurent is the fullest and richest, without being overwhelmingly big) but share a common trait of amazing food compatibility. All three grapes will give you good acidity, medium to full body, and a refreshing smack on the palate that is needed to counter the richness of the gravy.

The local hero: Marquette

Marquette is a hybrid variety developed by the University of Minnesota with Pinot Noir as one of the main DNA components. I’ve had many outstanding Marquette wines in the last ten months, with Carlos Creek and Schram leading the way. Again, Thanksgiving is a great excuse to try out these wines!

RULE NUMBER ONE when it comes to wine and Thanksgiving

Cranberry sauce is the kryptonite of wine. Seriously. There is no food I’ve found that will do more instant damage to every wine than cranberry sauce. My wife makes the greatest cranberry sauce in the world (see below) but I won’t have it with the meal and with my wines. I use cranberry sauce the way a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris uses sorbet: as an intermezzo after the main course and before the dessert rounds. It’s a wonderful “corrector” of the palate, shifting you back to where your mouth wants to be, with more acidity and lip-smacking goodness. 

The greatest cranberry sauce recipe ever was conceived by my wife through adapting a couple of recipes from Cook’s Illustrated and other sources. This is foolproof, and best if made a couple of days ahead of time. Those at Monday’s class will get to taste just how good this stuff is.


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Dessert wines

Assuming you’re going traditional, with an apple pie or something else baked-fruit related, make your guests swoon with some little pours of cold white dessert wine. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux, and some producers in California all make outstanding white dessert wines that can be surprisingly affordable. A little goes a long way here, and a half bottle (12 ounces) will serve six people. With dessert wine, you want to serve enough to get the taste but then run out. Leave your guests begging for more. A great local choice is the Ratafia from Alexis Bailly Vineyards in Hastings, available at most good local wine shops.

When and where to buy your wines for Thanksgiving

Let’s start with when: shop in the morning before the crowds hit. The two days before Thanksgiving are traditionally the busiest days at wine shops, and if you shop in the evening you may regret the chaos you step into.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: because I have no skin in the wine sales game, where you buy your wine is up to you. HOWEVER, I do have a loud opinion and it is this: buy from your local independent fine wine shop. We have a ton of them in the Twin Cities: North Loop Wine and Spirits, Surdyk’s, 1010, Thomas Liquors, Solo Vino, France 44, South Lyndale, Cork Dork Wine Company, Stinson, Brightwines, Excelsior Vintage, Henry and Son, and more. 

Why buy from the local independents instead of the big box stores? Two reasons.

First, the local independents actually meet with the local distributors and importers and taste wine. They search and search and taste and taste to find gems in the portfolios based on quality and bang for the buck. Big box stores often make their purchases from another time zone, emailing the spreadsheet to the stores.

Second, when you ask for a suggestion at the local independent shops, their goal is to connect you with the best wine of the type you’re asked for and they will use their extensive tasting knowledge to connect you to the wine. In the big box store, their goal is to drive you to the most profitable wines, with little regard for what you want. I’ve seen this myself: a manager at a big-box national chain berated their employee on the floor of the store for not steering enough customers to “our brands.” 

In Conclusion

In Minnesota, we can make Thanksgiving the most local of holidays. A Minnesota bird. Minnesota fixings. Minnesota apples in the pie. Even some Minnesota wine if you wish. Keep the wine shopping dollars in Minnesota, too, by shopping at the local independents. And raise a glass to all who helped bring that food and drink to the table!

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