Dummy's Guide to Christmas Wine Pairing
You don't need to be a sommelier at the fine dining restaurant of a five star hotel to pair the right wine with turkey and all the trimmings.
Nor do you need to break the bank. Unless you are dining with some hard-core wine snobs, the turkey should be the star of the show. The wine should only be a supporting act.
There is a widely held assumption that as a so-called white meat, turkey should be paired with a white wine rather than a red wine, and for many people, that would be Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is, after all, the default choice for white wine for many people. Either that or Sauvignon Blanc.
Forget what you've heard about pairing white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat.
To start with, this is an over-simplification. While it's a convenient rule of thumb, there are lots and lots of exceptions.
White Meat or Dark Meat
Secondly, turkey has both white meat AND dark meat. The white meat is drier and has a milder flavour. The dark meat is more moist and has a stronger flavour.
It's typical for hosts to ask, "White meat or dark meat?" when serving guests at a turkey dinner.
The fact of the matter is that turkey can be paired with either white wines OR red wines.
Because of the complexity of a traditional American or Canadian turkey dinner WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS, there is a variety of tastes, flavours, textures, and aromas.
And they are not served course by course. They all hit the table at the same time. They are consumed in concert with one another - often in the same mouth full.
So in addition to the subtle flavour of the turkey you've got to take the savoury dressing (or stuffing), the tangy cranberries, the sweet pickles, the creamy mashed potatoes, and earthy gravy all into consideration when choosing your wine.
Red wine or white? According to Decanter, either one will do. But keep the following in mind.
You want either a medium bodied red with low to medium tannin (an enemy of turkey) or a full bodied white.
Quick Wine Pairing Tips
- Look for an acidic wine that can cut the fat, temper the saltiness, and cleanse the palate between mouthfuls;
- Turkey is naturally dry so avoid dry wines;
- If buying a sparkling wine, look for the word "cru";
- Look for wines low in tannin so that they don't overwhelm the subtle flavours;
- Look for wines with enough body to compete with the rich textures;
- Look for wines with low alcohol content so as not to turn your turkey dinner into a drunken brawl - the meal can drag on and on;
- When in doubt, stick with rose or champagne;
- Save sweet wines such as Port, Asti Spumante, Muscat, and Sauternes for dessert;
- Turkey is a North American bird, so pair it with a North American wine whenever possible.
- While it is widely accepted that Chardonnay goes well with the turkey meat itself, it doesn't always work well with the trimmings.
A quick survey of several North American wine and lifestyle website reveals lots of recommendations, and they vary from site to site.
Some of the wines appear here and there. A few of the wines appear on only one or two sites. But several of the wines are mentioned over and over and over.
Critical Mass of Approval
When it comes to red wine, there is a clear consensus: Pinot Noir, which Wine Blogger Stevie Staciones describes as "lighter in body and softer in palate than Cabernet or Merlot".
Please no Burgundys or Bordeaux! These full bodied reds will over-power the taste of the food!
According to Sunset, a hugely popular lifestyle magazine in the Western United States, Pinot Noir is the perfect fit, and the magazine has lots of company.
Pinot Noir is not only high in acid and low in tannin, the wine also has bright cherry and cranberry flavours over rich spices.
These characteristics make it the perfect match for a traditional turkey dinner.
As for Chardonnay ...
When it comes to Chardonnay, however, the reviews are clearly mixed.
Chardonnay is the number one choice of Stevie, who says, "A great California Chardonnay with a bit of toasty oak in it definitely fits the bill with its round mouth feel and slight creaminess, which just begs for some buttery mashed potatoes and gravy.".
But other oenophiles are far from enthusiastic about the tipple as an accompaniment to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
They fear that the oakey characteristics of many Chardonnays would overwhelm the food, overshadowing it, and making it seem flavourless.
"Chardonnay would be the last wine I would think of for Thanksgiving dinner," says Shayn Bjornholm, Wine Director of Seattle's Canlis restaurant, who is quoted in Sunset.
First Mover Advantage
No one does turkey better than the Americans - except, possibly, for the Canadians - and it's no surprise.
Turkeys are, after all, native to the Americas. Turkey was one of the many dishes served at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, which took place at what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the United States.
Lots of other dishes were served on that historic day, but most of them have long since been forgotten.
Over the centuries, however, turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that many people refer to it as Turkey Day.
And despite the immense popularity of the bird, many Americans and Canadians only eat it twice or three times a year: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
An estimated two-thirds of turkey consumption in the United States takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
But how much is there in common with that first Thanksgiving dinner shared by pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe nearly 400 years ago and what Americans and Canadians feast on at Christmas and Thanksgiving today? Probably not much.
Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner
The meal slowly evolved over the decades, reaching its current format roughly 100 years ago.
A traditional turkey dinner in the United States and Canada is not just about the turkey. It is about turkey "with all the trimming", and this must be taken into consideration when pairing turkey with wine.
The trimmings usually refer to a bread (and sometimes a sausage) based stuffing or dressing, which is cooked inside the cavity of the turkey, as well as cranberry sauce, sweet pickles, mashed potatoes, and giblet gravy.
And if you don't know what goes into giblet gravy, don't ask. Ignorance is bliss. You'll enjoy it more if you don't know.
Then come the sides dishes: sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, baked squash, candied yams, the list goes on, and it varies from family to family.
Pot luck is also a time-honoured tradition at most family gatherings, with each family contributing a dish they prepare at home .
So don't just look for a wine that goes well with turkey. You have to consider the many and varied accompaniments, as well.
With so much to consider, who has the time to do all that research?
Top 10 Fool-proof Wine Pairing List
I've surveyed the experts, and I've come up with a short list of perfect wine pairings for harried cooks and guests wanting to pick up a bottle of wine on their way to a turkey dinner:
- Pinot Noir (red)
- Zinfandel (red)
- Syrah (red)
- Riesling (white)
- Gewurztraminer (white)
- Chenin Blanc (white)
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Beaujolais (red or white)
- Chianti (red)
- Pino Grigio (white)
Needless to say, not everyone likes turkey. Ham, goose, and duck are also served along with turkey at many gatherings.
Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Riesling, and Gewurtraminer go with ham as well as turkey.
Gewurtraminer also goes with duck.
The idea for this post came about while I was getting ready to try cooking a traditional American style turkey dinner with all the trimmings from scratch for the first time.
I wanted to prove to some skeptical friends that had never had a home-cooked turkey dinner before that the disappointing restaurant turkey dinners they had tried in Hong Kong were a pale imitation of the real deal.
In the past, I usually ordered a turkey from a restaurant, preparing only the stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy myself. And the gravy was usually out of a packet.
This time I went to an international supermarket, where I was able to buy a 15 pound frozen turkey imported from the United States.
While there, I picked up several other needed ingredients such as Ocean Spray Whole Cranberry Sauce and Heintz Premium Sweet Gherkins pickles to serve as accompaniments, country sausage and Grissol Classic Croutons for the stuffing, and Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin for the pumpkin pie.
Most of the other needed ingredients such as potatoes, vegetables, onions, and mushrooms I was able to get at the local wet market - or they were already in my kitchen cupboards.
While I waited for the turkey to defrost, I got on line to research this piece. That's when I discovered that the first choice of most of the websites I consulted was not in my wine cabinet: Pinot Noir.
I did have Shiraz, which was the second choice. And the only other wine I had on hand, Cabernet Sauvignon, was advised against.
I asked one of my guests to bring a bottle of Pinot Noir, and brought one from France.
The following sources were consulted in the preparation of this blog post: About Food, Better Homes and Gardens, Community Table, Decanter, The Globe and Mail, Sunset, Thanksgiving, Vine Pair, Wikipedia, and Wine Net.