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The Best Wine For Thanksgiving

Everyday Food, Volume 84 November 2000

Fruity, medium-bodied reds pair beautifully with a traditional turkey dinner.

Why drink red?

Although white wine can be wonderful with turkey, many people find red more festive and a better choice with the autumn flavors that dominate the Thanksgiving table. Choosing one that works well with your menu will be easy if you follow a few guidelines.

Mid-priced is best

It's not necessary to splurge on wine for Thanksgiving. That's because the traditional menu has a lot of sweet elements, such as cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, that aren't flattering to complex and subtle wine. A well-made wine with more straightforward character will likely taste better. And you needn't spend more than $15 -- indeed, you may find something delicious for even less.

Keep it light

With turkey, you want something soft and not too dry -- a wine that tastes and smells of berries and cherries or plums. A soft red is "medium-bodied," which means it's relatively low in tannin, the substance in grape skins that gives red wine its color and "weight." Like a good turkey gravy, it will feel silky in your mouth, not rough or astringent. A medium-bodied red will also be somewhat lower in alcohol than a full-bodied wine, with a level of 13 percent or less. This contributes to the sensation of lightness, and it allows the fruit flavors to come through. You'll find the alcohol level on the label, in small print along the bottom or side.

Domestic favorites

Pinot Noir, with its low tannin and bright, refreshing acidity, pairs well with so many dishes that it's becoming very popular year-round. A good Pinot Noir from Oregon, California, or Washington State will taste of berries or sour cherry, with hints of mushroom and dried herbs.

For something a little fuller, try a California-made Syrah (or Shiraz), which has a rustic, peppery quality and flavors that call to mind sweet pumpkin-pie spice. Red Zinfandel can be even denser, with a concentrated black raspberry-jam flavor that many people love with turkey. Lighter versions are recommended and very affordable.

Imported favorites

Beaujolais, from the Burgundy region of France, is a grapey, easy-to-drink wine that seems made for Thanksgiving. Inexpensive bottles of "nouveau" (freshly bottled) Beaujolais can be found all over the United States in November; if you have enjoyed it in the past, this year try an aged version, which will be smoother and more aromatic -- often for just a few extra dollars. Serve it at "cellar temperature" -- that is, slightly chilled.

Red Cotes du Rhone, from France's Rhone Valley, tends to be earthier and spicier -- more like California Syrah, which is not surprising, since it is made from a blend of grapes that includes Syrah. From Italy, one of the best Thanksgiving choices is Barbera, a lush, low-tannin red. It is still considered a little exotic but is increasingly available here at affordable prices, starting at $12 a bottle.