If the humble turkey is technically the centerpiece of most American Thanksgiving dinners (a safe assumption, given that people in the United States eat about 46 million of the gobblers every fourth Thursday in November), then why do we spend so little time on it? We tend to stash the turkey in the oven, same method every year, and then turn our attention – and our sense of innovation – to appetizers and side dishes.
This year we’ve seen caramelized onion and gruyere bread pudding instead of stuffing, plum and prosecco-laced cranberry sauce, and brussels sprout slaw, and that’s just what we’re prepping for our own Wine Geographic dinner tables. As for the turkey…? Well, like a lot of people, we’re kind of still figuring that out.
Whether you’re looking for last-minute inspiration or just hoping to jazz up your poultry-cooking game overall, we’ve got not only a ton of turkey and wine pairings, including how to make the turkey and where to buy the wine.
(scroll to the bottom for links to our other Thanksgiving articles, including lots of wine recommendations and recipes for your post-Thanksgiving leftoverpalooza!)
The Traditional Bird
If you’re looking for a classic recipe you Google something by Alton Brown, and his recipe for at traditional roast turkey doesn’t disappoint. The Good Eats guru uses a brine containing salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger – all lovely, flavor-boosting aromatics that will enhance the turkey without overwhelming.
For this turkey – and most turkeys, actually – Pinot Noir is one of the best Thanksgiving wines you’ll come across. Pinot has a good amount of acid and few tannins, which means it’ll mesh well with a variety of foods, from gravy to homemade apple sauce, without provoking a fight on your palate. The spice level of the wine will play nicely with the spice from the turkey’s brine, too.
The Fried Bird
Though deep frying a turkey is nowhere near as common as roasting one in the oven, like a sane person, fryer aficionados swear that their birds come out super juicy and with the golden-brown, uber-crispy skin we all love.
On the face of it, this pairing seems difficult: you have all that fat, right? What’s going to cut through it all? Really, though, what you’re trying to pair is that crispy, salty skin and the succulent turkey meat (deep-fried turkey is arguably the most purely turkey-tasting bird you’ll get), and for that, you can’t go wrong with sparkling wine.
The Butter-Rubbed Bird
Mmmmm… butter. The anti-turkey brigade generally has two main complaints: dry turkey and flavorless turkey. Roast a turkey straight out of the bag and it’s likely to taste like, well, the bag. Roast it too long and no amount of gravy will help you atone for the sin of over-roasting your main dish. Enter butter. Top Chef star Tom Colicchio infuses butter with thyme, tarragon, rosemary, and safe, then uses the mixture to season the turkey under its skin, in the cavity, and on the outside of the bird as well. Colicchio gets bonus points for his gravy base recipe, which makes use of the otherwise (virtually) useless giblets and wings.
As a sommelier, whenever you hear “butter” you almost automatically think Chardonnay. The lightly toasty notes and vanilla-tinged aroma of a good Chardonnay (not an oak bomb, but something balanced and juicy) will work nicely, and the touch of citrus and green apple you often get will provide a common thread for the rest of your side dishes to hang onto, too. White wine blends from Rhone will work for similar reasons.
The Smoked Bird
If you have a smoker big enough to fit a whole turkey, you’re already halfway on your journey to awesome-ville. If you don’t, that’s okay too; you can always turn you charcoal grill into a temporary smoker. That trick will get you not just through Thanksgiving but also any summer BBQ or Father’s Day feast that calls for a few slabs of ribs or lip-smacking sausages. As for the turkey, smoking your bird will result in a complex, rich, super-rich aroma and flavor that’s tempered by a subtle sweetness thanks to the wood chips you use (cherry and apple wood are particularly yummy choices).
A smoked turkey can easily overwhelm gentle wines, so you need something with a bit of oomph. That calls for Syrah, a wine with plenty of smoky/jerky notes of its own, or Red Zinfandel, which combines jammy overtones with a dark, tobacco and pepper bottom.
Check out our other Thanksgiving articles:
- Thanksgiving Appetizers and Wine Pairings
- Pumpkinless Thanksgiving Dessert and Wine Pairings
- Thanksgiving Leftovers: The Wine Pairings and Recipes You Need to Try
- Thanksgiving After Dinner Drinks
- Thanksgiving Wines for Every Budget