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Wine Guide for Thanksgiving

Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? Which wine is best with your Thanksgiving dinner?

The key spice in a Thanksgiving feast is variety, and the diverse viticultural regions of Sonoma Wine Country provide all the variety of wines you need. Whether you are considering Chardonnay from Russian River Valley, Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek Valley or Pinot Noir from Sonoma Carneros, Sonoma County wineries produce great wines to accompany your Thanksgiving dinner.

The traditional turkeyfest counterpoints light against dark, earthy with sweet. The turkey itself has both dry, light meat and gamey, dark meat, while popular vegetarian options include lentil loaf and roasted vegetables. Bits of apple brighten the stuffing amid mushroom and bread, cranberry sauce, and brown sugar-glazed yams contrast with mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, while savory olives chase sweet pickles around the table; all of it smothered, as you please, with rich gravy.

When tasked with bringing wine to the holiday table, consider not only the variety of foodstuffs you pair it with, but the variety of friends and family and their tastes. With Sonoma County wines, you can both play it safe, and step up the quality at the same time. Consider bringing a white and a red, plus something different.

Top four wine pairings:

Dry Rosé
This just may be the perfect, all-round Thanksgiving wine pairing. Yes, this includes dry rosé of Zinfandel — a savvy substitute for your relations who simply must have their White Zinfandel. The overwhelming majority of pink wines now made in Sonoma County are a very dry style, with flavors suggestive of strawberry, watermelon and cherry, quenching acidity and a dry finish, perfect for lighter meats and dressing. Rosé of Pinot Noir and Syrah are top choices; quality dry rosé is usually priced between $12 and $25.

Best if you’re bringing three bottles, as it may be controversial. But Chef John Ash says forget about the old Blue Nun stereotype: “Dry style Riesling is the perfect wine to serve with holiday foods, which typically tend to include lots of aromatics along with sweet/savory highlights.” Riesling may even taste less sweet than some big, butterscotchy Chardonnays out there, while matching the meal with more elegance and natural acidity. Chateau St. Jean makes a lovely dry Riesling.

Pinot Noir
Thanksgiving is just not the time to buck tradition, and ye olde Pinot Noir and T-Day wine pairing is a keeper. Light to medium-bodied, silky, with the tartness of cranberries, the charm of cherries, and earthy undertones of forest floor, Pinot Noir has the home advantage for the holiday. Sonoma Carneros Pinot, very generally speaking, may exhibit an earthy potpourri of cranberry and herbal notes, with strawberry fruit; while Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley Pinot may often be richer, displaying black cherry, cola, and brown baking spices — a good bet for barbecued turkey and dark meat.

Because a lot of people love the Chardonnay. Instead of showing off by bringing Grüner Veltliner or some such modish wine, focus on pleasing Chard fans with a single-vineyard Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast. Not because they’re more expensive, but because of the quality of barrel selection and attention to details like lees management and natural yeast fermentation that winemakers lavish on top releases.

More wine pairings to consider:

Sparkling Wine
It’s never too early for bubbly. Is somebody making crab cakes? Pop open a Blanc de Noirs from Gloria Ferrer. As with rosé (see above), even better with sparkling rosé.

Sauvignon Blanc
Look for a smoky, barrel-fermented “Fumé Blanc” style — it’s never going to be as rich as a Chardonnay. Introduce grassy, fruity Sauvignon Blancs with great caution, and a backup wine.

Hard to find, but worth the search. Like Pinot Noir, Grenache is both bright and earthy, although often higher in alcohol. Look for Quivira, Ram’s Gate, and Unti.

Unless you’re a Thanksgiving apostate, grilling burgers or smoking ribs, heady Zinfandel might seem contraindicated for this  national holiday. But if you like Zin, consider dialing down the heat: A few producers conscientiously make a lower-ABV style friendly to the meal; Harvest Moon and Nalle are good places to start.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
If you must bring big, Bordeaux-style wines to a turkey dinner, search your cellar for older vintages. Some wineries, like Jordan, offer perfectly aged wines from their library.

Alternatives and Adventures:

The New World’s Sonoma County is blessed with the climate to ripen diverse varietals from across the Old World. Light, fruity varietals like Dolcetto, Charbono, and Gamay Noir are made by few wineries, but are fun and food-friendly — see Duxoup, Da Vero, and Jacuzzi.

Every host should keep sparkling, non-alcoholic cider on hand, but did you know that Sonoma County is host to a hard cider renaissance? These ciders, made with heirloom varieties like the Gravenstein apple, have complex flavors well-suited to the autumnal flavors of November. Look for sparkling from Tilted Shed or still cider from Devoto.

And don’t forget late-harvest Chardonnay, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc for the dessert course.

Where can you find Sonoma County wines? Apart from local beverage stores, you can order directly from the wineries, or even better, pick up a few bottles in person. Here are listings for Sonoma County Wineries and info about how to ship wine home. Depending on your state or country of residence certain regulations and restrictions apply.

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight