A Surprising Approach to Thanksgiving Wines

At this time of year, probably the question most commonly asked of Wine Spectator editors is: What wines go with Thanksgiving dinner?

We’ve variously answered that by talking about the varieties that go best with the diverse foods on the table, from savory stuffing to marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. (My go-tos: Riesling and Pinot Noir.) We’ve talked strategies: Put a range of easy-drinking values on the table, pick personal favorites of your guests (and yourself), dip into your wine collection or pair a single wine with each course. (I’d do a combo of the first two, unless your Thanksgiving is more orderly than my family’s.)

My take: Holiday wine matches aren’t so much about the food that’s on the table, but who is around it.

You might think that my family would devote more than the usual attention to the wine they’re drinking during a holiday meal. Not exactly. In truth, everyone’s too busy chattering, passing platters around, keeping the kids amused and catching up with those we see only a few times a year. Amid all that, who can think much about what’s in their glasses? Except that doesn’t give me a pass. They still expect it to be great. (Dad, teasing mid-meal, «Why don’t you ever serve us expensive wines?»)

So I aim to startle, to surprise.

Every year, I introduce some new things into the mix of favorites, with nothing more than a couple of words as I pour or pass it: «This is an Italian white.» If at least one succeeds in startling, it’s a chance for education, without a pedantic introduction. Someone will take note for a moment between bites and ask the question: «What is this?»

Last year it was Cune’s delicious white Rioja, Monopole, which caught everyone’s attention with its vibrant citrus and herbs; they were surprised to learn that Rioja even made white wines.

I’ve subbed in Mencía for Pinot, Croatian reds for California Zin, cru Beaujolais for the Nouveau that looms large this time of year. The outstanding, minerally, layered Morgon might not have totally converted my skeptical brother to Gamay, but it got him thinking.

Another meal proved that the «I don’t like sweet wine» contingent can like sweet wine—when there’s so much more to the flavors than just sweetness. Two nutty, spicy, autumnal Yalumba «Museum» releases—a tawny and a Muscat—led the way to everything from Sauternes to Vintage Port being eagerly accepted later on.

What will it be this year? Well, I can’t give too much away. My family loves Italian wines, so I’ll throw in one of the seemingly never-ending supply of unfamiliar indigenous varieties. There’s always a new Riesling—Australia, Canada, Oregon, maybe a newer Finger Lakes single-vineyard or experimental bottling. Maybe it’s time for Arizona, Virginia or even my home state of New Jersey.

How about you? What are you serving? And what’s the biggest surprise wine you’ve had or served at a holiday meal?

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