So, you’re planning on giving thanks for the bountiful harvest placed upon your table, and you’d like a spot of wine to help you celebrate the past year…and to brace you for the home stretch run of winter holidays to come. Of course you would! Wine is one of the mainstays of a traditional harvest dinner—a day when even novices and teetotalers will take a sip (or two or three), not to mention the connoisseurs in the family, so it’s smart to enter into the occasion with a few good bottles.
The thing that every wine buyer/drinker should know about Thanksgiving and accompanying wines is that Pinot Noir is widely named as the go-to red, and an off dry, high acidity Riesling is popular for those who prefer the white grape. That was easy! Wait—maybe it was too easy. Let’s get a little creative here; after all, you’ve spent a lot of time parsing recipes and crafting a multi-course meal for the ages, so it’s worth giving a little extra thought to your holiday beverage.
The best way to spruce up the wine offerings on this most joyous of days is to know your boundaries and just how far to stretch them. When finding a substitute for the more predictable Riesling, stay away from Chardonnay, no matter how much Aunt Claire loves it, as the rich oak notes of most varieties get overwhelmed by the varied sweets, herbs and spices that are the hallmarks of this grand meal. Instead opt for something more exotic, such as a sweet Moscato or a Pinot Gris. If you’ll be dining with a very dedicated Chardonnay drinker (we’re looking at you, Aunt Claire), you can compromise by having an un-oaked variety on hand. That way you can reserve the fighting for who gets the last slice of pecan pie!
Now for the fun part: replacing that Pinot Noir with something that has a little more flair or mystery can be a difference maker at Thanksgiving. The meal is one of familiarity and comfort, so the wine is a chance to mix it up a bit and set this year’s meal apart from past ones. As with the Riesling substitutes, the Pinot Noir stand-ins should not stray too far from the beaten path. There’s a reason that sommeliers consistently suggest these wines for these types of meals, after all; the low tannin, high acid fruitiness is a practical necessity here, unless you’re doing a non-traditional meal. Fortunately there are several very suitable reds that fit the Pinot Noir profile, and you’ll score bonus points with the aficionados at your table, or with the host if you’re planning on bringing a bottle.
Let’s start in Spain with Mencia and move east. Mencia is a grape found mostly in northwestern Spain that has really started coming into its own in recent years. It compares favorably with the robust California Pinots, and has a palette pleasing earthiness to its fruity overtones.
Sliding a couple of ticks to the northeast you’ll find a wonderful grape in what used to be the Burgundy region of France. Hailing from Jura, a little spot near the border with Switzerland, Trousseau displays many of the same characteristics of a Pinot, but with a pleasingly sharp finish. If you’re looking for a fast fact or two about your selection that you can drop in conversation, this grape is in heavy use in Portugal’s port wines. It also has an interesting alternate name: Bastardo. Just maybe don’t mention that in front of Grandma.
For the family of Germanic descent, a category into which nearly a fifth of Americans fit, the Old Country gets short shrift on this particular holiday. If you want to honor your heritage, but the idea of plating several pounds of schnitzel doesn’t appeal to you, Austria’s very own Zweigelt is your answer. This youthful variety, a mating of St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch, is now the most abundant red grape grown in Austria. Floral and peppery, a Zweigelt is the perfect complement to a ham or turkey-centered feast.
If you’re one of the growing number of folks opting for a vegetarian or otherwise non-traditional Thanksgiving, the options open up a bit. It’s easy as pumpkin pie to find a tasty Beaujolais, light and fruity and ready for duty. Try a Syrah for pairing with zestier dishes. Its fullness and flavor will ensure that it doesn’t get overwhelmed by the ghost pepper chutney.
And don’t forget that bottle of un-oaked Chardonnay, for when Aunt Claire mistakes that chutney for marmalade. Oops! At least you know your meal (and the wines you served) will be memorable.