It can be complicated and difficult to properly pair wines with the Thanksgiving dinner. You have so many different types of dishes -- spicy, sweet, savory -- and with so many different types of wines to choose from, which ones should make it to the Thanksgiving table?
We spoke with two of Houston's most popular sommeliers, Sean Beck of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Trevisio Restaurant, and Vanessa Treviño-Boyd of Philippe, about their recommendations for wine pairings this Thanksgiving. Take their advice and you're bound to have a well-rounded, excellent meal on Thursday.
Beck explains that the variety of flavors on the table gives you the opportunity to use just about any wine from any region.
"There is nothing in there [Thanksgiving dinner] that is so intensely dominant in flavor that it really needs a particular wine. You can kind of go hog-wild with whatever you want your theme to be. Years past, that is what I have always done. One year I might go Italian; there are so many beautiful Italian wines that will just work beautifully with the ham, turkey and all the sides," he says. "If you want to keep it American, you can keep it classic American wines; you can do a Zinfandel, which I think is a great counterpoint to turkey; it is a very mild, subtle flavor -- it brings spice to the table, but it can also handle the sweet potatoes and all of the fixings, the heavy stuffing and mac and cheese that we put on the table."
But before you start picking the wines for the day, Beck suggests gauging your audience.
"If your audience is adventurous, then go for adventurous, but the thing I mainly tell them to stay away from is really really high alcohol, really really high tannin," Beck says. "I mean, this is not the holiday to be busting out Cabernet and Bordeaux...and those really dense, decadent reds that require some fat to soften it up, because...most of us aren't serving a standing rib roast -- that's more for Christmastime."
Both Beck and Treviño-Boyd recommend Pinot Noir for the Thanksgiving table.
"I like to have a number of different things on the table so that people can mix and match things and try different things. For me, going to visit family, bringing wine is all about introducing people to something they haven't had before," Treviño-Boyd says. "So I like to bring a couple of different Pinot Noirs, one from Burgundy and one from California. So, one from the old world and one from the new world, to kind of give them an example of the range of expressions that Pinot Noir can have depending on where it was grown. I like Pinot Noir from Burgundy; I like Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast -- that's one of my favorite areas in California right now."
Beck says the choice of red wine should be light, not heavy.
"Thanksgiving is a great holiday for Pinot Noir and other velvety reds because they are a little bit more subtle and aromatic; you think of all the light, herbal tones that we use that day, sage in our gravy, thyme and those really soft aromatic notes," Beck says. "To me it is a day for just approachable, softer, amicable wines in general, and pretty much everyone in some capacity does something like that -- be it Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Germany, parts of America."
Treviño-Boyd loves stuffing on Thanksgiving and believes a Pinot Noir is a perfect wine to pair with the side dish.
"Pinot Noir is fabulous with savory stuffing, with sage, bay and thyme, and all sorts of things that people do with their stuffing, all sorts of meat they put in it -- game, pork, chicken, etc., etc.," Treviño-Boyd says. "So I like a heartier Pinot Noir, one from the Sonoma Coast or one from -- if you are looking to Burgundy -- one from Gevrey-Chambertin."
Treviño-Boyd also brings a variety of Rieslings (dry and sweet) from different countries and states.
"I like dry Riesling, trocken [dry]Riesling from Germany, and also Riesling from the Finger Lakes in New York can be fantastic. There are some great producers there and I don't think people think of New York State when they think of Riesling. Some do, but I think more people should, because it's a fantastic place for Riesling and there is some great value there," she says. "I like Austrian Rieslings; they can be a bit richer and a little rounder, a little fuller-bodied, but still have that minerality you want in Riesling. And Austrian Rieslings are often much drier than German Rieslings."
If you're doing a ham instead of a turkey this year, Beck suggests a Riesling as the appropriate wine pairing.
"If you do ham, to me you've got to have Riesling. I always find a way to do Riesling no matter what country of origin I do for Thanksgiving because it is wonderful with a lot of food; it's usually lower in alcohol, which means I can drink a lot more of it during the course of the day without getting to that point I might say something I might regret to a family member," Beck says. "I think in Texas, glazed ham is almost as popular as turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table, so Riesling is just beautiful with that sweet, spicy, layered glazed ham."
Treviño-Boyd believes a glass of Riesling pairs perfectly with one of the sides most complex in flavor -- cranberry sauce. She says you have to pay special attention to it because it is pungent and dominates everything on the plate.
"You get your plate and you go in line, and it's sort of a buffet, and at the very end you've got this bright red sweet cranberry sauce," Treviño-Boyd says. "And people love cranberry sauce, and that's where Riesling comes into play -- German Riesling, I think, because the off-dry (the sweetness) stands up to the sweetness in the cranberry sauce and the acidity in Riesling stands up to all that acidity you have in cranberries."
The other sweet components to the Thanksgiving meal are the desserts. Treviño-Boyd says she enjoys Canadian ice wine with the after-dinner treat.
"It's ice wine, so the grapes are actually picked very late in the season, December to January ... which [by that] time the grapes have frozen on the vine, and the sugar is concentrated, and all of the water has escaped and evaporated," Treviño-Boyd says. "So, you've got these intensely sweet berries, and wine is made out of that and certain parts of Canada are perfect for that -- Niagara Peninsula is perfect for ice wine. It can be very very intensely sweet, but it goes well with some of the sweeter desserts you have on the table at Thanksgiving."
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Beck prefers a Pedro Ximénez sherry with his desserts.
"Sherry is ridiculously popular, but Pedro Ximénez sherry, they dry the skins out in the sun, they add it back to the juice, and then they kind of let it ferment together and it sits most of its life in a barrel until it's ready to bottle," Beck says. "You can find versions from the 1980s on the shelves at Spec's and other wine shops; [it] will only cost you about 30 to 45 bucks and they are unbelievable with pumpkin and pecan, and like the shortbread cookies, and they are just delicious. It's kind of cool to have something old on your table."
Most important, though, Beck says to keep the wine pairings simple and friendly.
"Have fun, don't overthink it. It's a day about communal gathering," he says. "So, there's a phrase of wisdom I give to everybody when they are planning an event, and that's 'I've had more great wines ruined by bad company than anything else.' If you have a stressful company coming over, don't shoot for the moon and try to salvage the day by opening up a great bottle of wine, because chances are you're just going to regret you opened it up if you have a contentious gathering."