You might think that one of the biggest holidays of the year would provide the perfect excuse to dip into the wine cellar and pull out a few bottles you’ve stashed there to mellow into magnificence. The trouble is, the wines we tend to put into our cellars—well-structured Cabernets, well-oaked Chardonnays—wouldn’t necessarily fare well with the foods we put on our tables for Thanksgiving dinner. Like aging divas, those cellar treasures need just the right light to maintain their dignity. And all the fixings around our traditional roast turkeys add up to pretty harsh light for those beauties. Exuberant spices, sweet fruit, tangy vinegars—wine killers all.
The best wines to pop open for Thanksgiving need to embody two key traits.
First, they shouldn’t be tannic. Amid the cacophony of spiciness and sweetness on the table, tannins can create a train wreck of a pairing, which effectively rules out the Bordeaux family. But the principle goes for whites as well; the oak tannin in a lot of great Chardonnays is not a good match either.
The second quality good Thanksgiving wines need—whether red or white—is lush, generous, sweet-seeming fruit. That will handle all the rambunctious flavors on the table—with good planning, even the cranberry sauce. Here are our top dozen picks among four wines that work out especially well, including a magnum or two to anchor the festivities.
With its silky tannin structure and characteristic warm spice notes (cloves, cardamom, maybe even Chinese five spice), Pinot Noir can loop shamelessly into the flavors of a traditional turkey menu. But it does need to be fresh-fruited Pinot. (Don’t be tempted by those mature red Burgundies in your portfolio, as wonderful as they most certainly are.) Top Sonoma producers make just what’s called for.
Dutton Goldfield 2016 “Deviate” Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Known for distinctive single-vineyard Pinots, Dutton Goldfield certainly does “deviate” with this two-vineyard blend ($72). But the balance achieved here between plush fruit and fresh acidity shouts Thanksgiving. High-toned violets on the nose, layered with briary berries and toasted spice, give way to lush black raspberry and tart cranberry flavors with an orange-peel kick, while warm spice loops in on a velvety finish.
Merry Edwards 2016 “Vintage 20” Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Also known for single-vineyard jewels, iconic Pinot producer Merry Edwards celebrates 20 years under her namesake brand with this blend ($120) from all of the winery’s estate vineyards. Opening with dark, earthy layers of damp loam and black tea dancing with high-toned violet aromas, the wine moves on to a beautiful rush of fruit—dark berries, juicy plum, and pomegranate. This is a bold one, an easy match for a Thanksgiving spread.
Three Sticks 2016 Walala Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Under the deft hand of legendary winemaker Bob Cabral, formerly of Williams Selyem, this Pinot ($70) from one of Three Sticks’ newest vineyard sources, far out on the Sonoma Coast, delivers a spice rack full of seasoning (staring clove and cardamom), with forest notes, loam, a hint of mushroom, and florals. A juicy bushelful of berry, red raspberry, and Rainier cherry flavors follow. This is an elegant Pinot that manages depth and power at the same time.
The closest thing our country has to a wine it can call its own, Zinfandel hits the right notes for the holiday both in spirit and in character. Its typical dark, jammy berry fruit loves the spices on the table, and the wine often throws its own black pepper into the mix to season the pot.
Bedrock Wine Co. 2016 The Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley
Morgan Twain-Peterson has a soft spot for old California vineyards. Son of Zinfandel master Joel Peterson (founder of Ravenswood, in the early days based on historic Zin vineyards, and Joel still produces those beautiful single-vineyard wines), he teamed up with his father on The Bedrock Vineyard, planted 130 years ago, and has genetically mapped every vine: 27 varieties in the old field blend—Carignane, Mourvèdre, Alicante Bouschet … But Zinfandel dominates this wine ($46), with dark-souled and exotically spiced blackberry, plum, and plenty of pepper.
Gary Farrell 2014 Maffei Vineyard Zinfandel Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Populated by 90-plus-year-old vines, the Maffei Vineyard is registered with the Historic Vineyard Society. Gary Farrell takes full advantage of the vine age with this deeply concentrated Zin ($50). Juicy, spicy, briary berry cobbler flavors are layered with licorice, black pepper, hints of dark chocolate, and savory herbs.
Robert Biale Vineyards 2016 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley
While Zinfandel played a larger role in Napa’s earlier days, the price of the ground now, based on dollars spent on bottles of Cabernet, means that red has given way to the “king.” Robert Biale Vineyards, historic Zinfandel advocate, is a holdout with Aldo’s Vineyard, containing the oldest vines in Oak Knoll. The Zin ($85) is concentrated but elegant, with ripe red berries mixed with darker fruit and pretty dried floral aromas.
White Rhône Blends
The white grapes from the Rhône Valley—Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc—in concert, offer a rich weight in the mouth that’s a great foil for the textures of a turkey dinner. And their beautiful honeyed citrus flavors call to mind harvest themes the feast is designed to celebrate.
Château de Nalys 2017 Grand Vin Blanc Châteauneuf-du-Pape
It might be painting outside the lines a little to suggest an actual Rhône wine for Thanksgiving dinner instead of versions from the States, but this beauty is worth keeping an eye out for. Under the ownership now of iconic E. Guigal, Château de Nalys, in Châteauneuf, has upped its game. This Roussanne-based white ($105), mouth-filling but bright, has lovely aromatics of honeysuckle, nectarines, and wet stones. Creamy lemon and peach on the palate are accented with hints of oak spice and vanilla.
Margerum Wine Company 2017 M5 White Santa Barbara County
An appealing blend from one of Santa Barbara’s leading Rhône-variety producers, Margerum’s 2017 M5 offers richness balanced by acidity. Honeyed stone fruit and subtle tropicals are underlined with minerality. Put magnums of this on your table ($45).
Tablas Creek Vineyard 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc Adelaida district, Paso Robles
This serious Roussanne-based blend comes from the Central Coast producer who has been largely responsible for bringing all of the Châteauneuf grape varieties to the U.S. (the Haas family, proprietors of Tablas Creek, are partners with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, and the vines producing this wine were propagated from budwood cuttings from that Rhône estate). Rich and spicy stone fruit, honeyed citrus, and limestone minerality come together for a great fall sip—even better out of magnum ($95).
It’s a sad truth that sparkling wine is generally abandoned after the toast. The real truth is that, as a category, with their racy acidity and riveting textures, sparklers are some of the best food wines on the planet. Two styles in particular work beautifully all the way through Thanksgiving dinner: Vintage bruts with years on the lees have a rich weight in the mouth that matches the textures of the meal, plus the flavor-pairing benefit of red fruit, apple, and citrus from the Pinot Noir–Chardonnay combo. And brut rosés are just perfect all around—for color, bright flavor, and party personality. Keep them flowing.
Iron Horse 2005 Joy! Brut Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Could there be a better message in a name on Thanksgiving? With 13 years on the lees, this reserve bubbly from Iron Horse—bottled only in magnum ($275)—has all the gravitas of a vintage Champagne, and more: creamy lemon, earthy toast notes, and a nutty maturity.
Schramsberg 2001 Late Disgorged Reserve Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin Counties
While this wine from Schramsberg ($185) was originally released in 2007, some number of bottles were held back, for 11 more years en tirage. Heavily based on Pinot Noir, the mature wine layers caramelization around sweet berry and apple fruit, with honey, spice, stone fruit, and citrus joining this gala celebration in a bottle.
Ponzi Vineyards 2014 Brut Rosé Willamette Valley
Bright cranberry and wild strawberry pop in this gorgeous rosé from Oregon pioneer Ponzi Vineyards ($50). Exotic blossoms and brioche add layers, along with pear, hazelnut, and orange zest. Bring on the cranberry sauce.