Is Pinot Noir the best wine to serve with a Thanksgiving feast? Is there a way to make the traditional Thanksgiving meal pair better with Pinot Noir? What style of Pinot Noir is best to serve at Thanksgiving? The answers to these questions may surprise you…
First, and this may come as a shock, I, Mr. Pinot Noir, am going to say that the best pairing for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is NOT Pinot Noir. Now you know I wouldn’t say that without some explanation, so please let me explain:
The traditional flavors of Thanksgiving are light and sweet and creamy. Roast turkey and mashies with a light brown (turkey) gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and creamed veggies. The truth is that a pinot, especially an American pinot, is going to contrast starkly in weight and flavor with much of this. The sweetness of the traditional foods is going to make a pinot taste overly dry or sour. The heavy creaminess of the foods is going to have a similar effect, without the deeper, darker, smokier notes that might accentuate the fun parts of pinot. And finally, the lightness of the turkey is going to be made to taste dry and bland by a fruit and acid driven pinot.
So what is the best pairing for Thanksgiving? Probably a fruity or off-dry white. A Riesling or a rich, creamy Chardonnay might be perfect, or even a Viognier.
Is there a way to make the traditional Thanksgiving fare pair better with Pinot Noir? Absolutely. If you insist on having Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving – or, like me, with almost every meal – there are a few tricks you can use to create a Thanksgiving feast tailor-made for Pinot:
Try a fried or smoked turkey. A fried turkey will have a richness that will stand up to the fruit and acids in a Pinot. Smoking a turkey will deepen and darken its flavor profile, and make for an exciting enhancement to Pinot. Both of these techniques are labor and equipment intensive, however, and may not be an option. So try stuffing and rubbing your roast turkey with a can of chipotle chiles in adobo. The spice is nice, and the rich, smoky flavor will give the light turkey some extra oomph to balance against Pinot. Or sear some green, pasilla, and or poblano peppers over the gas burner and layer strips of these, blackened side down, over the turkey when roasting, and stuff the rest inside.
Try some pinot friendly alternatives to gravy. Three suggestions: 1) A pinot noir reduction, using onions or shallots, pinot noir, turkey drippings, butter and some salt & pepper. 2) An herb pesto sauce, similar to chimmichurri. Olive oil, garlic, some red pepper, and lots of herbs, with a splash of vinegar or lemon. Herbs could be basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and parsley. 3) A roasted or smoked chile salsa. Use some turkey drippings, pumpkin seeds, garlic, fresh tomato, squeeze of lemon, salt & pepper, oil, and a bunch of dried chiles morita or guajillo (soaked in hot water until soft). Blend until smooth.
Add some mushrooms to your stuffing. This is one of my favorite ways to pinot-pair Thanksgiving. I love mushrooms, and I love the way they bring out the earthy, meaty umame in Pinot. My stuffing is usually at least 50% mushrooms.
With these added flavors, the mashed potatoes may be great as a simple balancing starch. But you could also stir in some seared poblano chile strips, and/or crumbled bacon and chopped chives into your mashies. This touch of smoke and herbs will bring the otherwise light, creamy flavors more into balance with your pinot. Just for fun you could use purple potatoes too, instead of the usual white or yellow.
Finally, what style of Pinot Noir is best to serve at Thanksgiving? As always your own tastes and budget should dictate, but my suggestion is to think of Pinot Noir as the cranberry sauce of the meal (with appologies to the actual cranberry sauce). Cranberry sauce works by contrast. It is tart, tangy, and often sweet. It serves to refresh your palate and balance all the heavy, creamy, blandness of the other Thanksgiving foods.
Pinot Noir can work in essentially the same way. Thanksgiving is not the time for dark, restrained, earthy, minerally pinots or even for rich, alcoholic ones. For me it is a time for Pinot Noir that is light, and bright, bursting with sweet, tart fruit, with notes of pie spice. Oregon might be the perfect place to find this. Thanksgiving may, in fact, be the perfect time for that off vintage, 2007, in Oregon: light, tart, and often with noticeable smoky oak. The 07s didn’t please many upon release, but pairing them now with Thanksgiving might be a match made in heaven.
California pinots, though sweet, often lack the lightness and tartness and high cranberry notes that I want at Thanksgiving. If there are exceptions to this you’ll likely find them in the Russian River Valley.
And for the same reasons the ’07 Oregon Pinots would be great on T-day, it might also be a great day to drink some East Coast Pinot Noirs from Pennsylvania or New York.
Have an enjoyable, delicious and safe Thanksgiving. Remember, the best things to pair with Pinot Noir are people you love… just don’t eat them.