On the surface, your traditional Thanksgiving spread looks like a nightmare for wine pairing. Turkey, that's a white food, and cranberry sauce is definitely red; green beans go with Sauvignon Blanc, but this is a casserole; and what the hell goes with mashed potatoes? In reality, Thanksgiving is a really forgiving meal in both substance and spirit. The experience of drinking wine is highly subjective — If you taste a wine when in a crappy mood, you are bound to be critical; taste that same wine along with good friends and an awesome dinner, and you might just find it great. At the Thanksgiving table, people want to enjoy themselves, so chill out! What critical thoughts people do have in their heads are going to be subconsciously suppressed, or redirected at Uncle Ted (can you believe he's drunk already?). Whatever misgivings are left will be quickly put to bed by tryptophan.
Of course, you should still keep a few rules in mind. A simple tactic for Thanksgiving, or really any meal of numerous constituent parts, is to play towards the middle: keep the reds light and the whites big. Assuming you are not serving mutton or steak, your middle of the road wines are not likely to overpower any of the the dishes, but will certainly have the weight to hold their own.
I am not the first to make this claim — far from it, in fact, so there are numerous "traditional" pairings for the classic turkey-centric American meal. Below are some of those classic pairings, and some good value examples for each.
Alsace Pinot Gris
Though Pinot Gris/Grigio is most well known as the source of the typically banal Italian incarnation, in the Alsace region of eastern France, the grape takes on a very different character. Where the former is typically light and bland, Alsace Pinot Gris is quite full, almost oily, with exotic flavors of green apples, straw, and even acetone (trust me, this isn't always a bad thing). One of my favorite examples is the 2006 Mader Pinot Gris (about $18), which has a full body contrasted with an almost effervescent tingle, and finishes very dry.
Alsace and German Riesling
Riesling is one of those wines that has the unfortunate stigma of being considered "sweet." The inundation of the US market in the 70's with cheap German wines like Liebfraumilch and Zeller Schwartz Katz have left all Rieslings with a reputation for cloying sweetness and... not much else. In reality, Riesling is a highly versatile grape, which, depending on where and how it is grown, carries a range of sweetness from bone dry to liquid sugar. Most Rieslings from Alsace are quite dry, and bear a certain resemblance to Alsace Pinot Gris, though often with a floral component and some honey notes. Mader also makes a fine example of this wine, which has great melon fruit flavors and a long finish.
If your taste does lend itself towards sweet wines, the right German Riesling would also work quite well. For most foods that aren't particularly spicy, you are not going to want to go too sweet — a good rule of thumb is to look for a wine with an alcohol content around 11 to 11.5%. The Weingut Johannishof Charta Rheingau Riesling 2006 (about $25) has been a favorite of mine for some time. This full wine has just a hint of sweetness, which accentuates a core of spice and mineral flavors, balanced out by just the right amount of acidity.
Though rather uncommon in the US, Grenache is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, and is the dominate varietal in several parts of France, Italy and Spain. Regardless of where it is grown, Grenache is typically light to medium bodied, high in alcohol, and full of red fruit and spice. Cotes du Rhone is Grenache's most well known appellation, where it is often blended with the fuller bodied Syrah. Higher end CDRs like Chateauneuf-du-Pape can get quite pricey, but some lesser known areas represent excellent values. This year, try the Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil Cuvee Lea Felsch Cairanne 2005 (about $18) — though the name is awkward, the wine is superbly smooth, with great raspberry and apple skin flavors and a long, long finish.
For a different kind of Grenache, try the Argiolas Costera 2006 (about $17). Made in Sardinia from 100% Cannanou (a native type of Grenache), this wine has lots of strawberry fruit, along with a earthy element and lots of acidity — a great pick if you happen to be doing pasta next Thursday.
Pinot Noir and Gamay
Wherever they happen to be grown, the two native red grapes of Burgundy are as good as it gets when it comes to turkey. Pinot Noir, with its elegance, subtle aromatics, and lets face it, name recognition, is a great wine to pick when you are trying to impress. This year, one of my surprise favorites has been the Sebastiani Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006 (about $16). This wine has a great profile of black cherry and pepper, and unlike a lot of Pinot Noirs from California, vibrant acidity and little oak influence.
If a lush texture and fresh, jammy fruits are more your speed, try serving a Gamay. Most commonly associated with Beaujolais Nouveau (which hits the shelves today, fyi), Gamay is also the grape of the numerous cru Beaulolais, which run stylistically from bubblegum fruity to dark and brooding. The Louis Claude Desvignes Morgon Javernieres 2006 (about $26) is of the latter type; full textured, with dark purple fruit and granite flavors on a medium body with supple tannins.
Though more often thought of as a stand alone celebration sipper, sparkling wine can actually make a fantastic match with shellfish, chocolate, and yes, turkey. Like still wine, sparklers have lots of taste improving acid and aromatic compounds, but bring along the added bonus of bubbles, further heighten flavor sensations on the palate. Though I love Champagne, I can hardly suggest that its price is justified — for a good value, one has to look abroad, which can often be a dicey proposition. Recently, I picked up a bottle of an Aussie sparkler called Taltarni Brut Tache for $20, and I was wowed. Made from the classic grapes of Champagne, this wine has a full mouth feel and notes of toast, peach and apple flavors, and a crisp, dry finish. The word "tache" refers to the slight pink tinge achieved by adding a tiny bit of red wine to each bottle. This festive wine is one of the best I have had under $40, and would be great before, during, or after the main event.