In 1621 wild turkey was a documented feature of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. Indeed, wild turkey was so prevalent and so important to the colonial diet that it was seriously in the running against the bald eagle to become America’s national bird. Today, it’s a traditional Thanksgiving staple.

It’s not clear that wine was a feature of the first Thanksgiving. In fact, American wine production didn’t enjoy even modest commercial success until around the time Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. So it’s fair to say that pairing wine with this seasonal feast is a fairly recent consideration.

Limitless Options

Pairing wine with turkey seems easy enough. The challenge is not the main course, but the range of other sweet and savory dishes served as accompaniments. Let me just point out that there seems to be no end of solutions. A quick online search will yield limitless results.

One option is to serve a different wine with each course. Such a pairing might look like this:

Turkey and dressing—cabernet franc, merlot or a lightly oaked chardonnay.

Light side dishes—pinot gris or albariño.

Cranberry—sparkling wine or dry- style rosé.

Of course, this assumes that you are plating and serving the meal in courses. I don’t know about your house, but we tend to host a large number of guests and serve either family or buffet style.

Selecting one red and one white will give your guests an option and is always a safe strategy. Of course, there are also a couple different ways to mix it up and make the wine pairing entertaining.

Be adventurous or have some fun with your selections.

Be adventurous or have some fun with your selections.

Have A Little Fun With The Pairing

Some very serious oenophiles may stress over the right wine to serve. There is no reason that the choice needs to be onerous or fall completely on the host. Here are a couple of ideas to make the pairing both fun and a learning experience. I’ve used both of these with great success.

Option 1: One way to take the pressure off selecting a wine is to open three or four different bottles. This can be delegated to friends and family. Ask them to bring a bottle and open all of them together. Encourage your guests to sample each of the wines and try them with different items from the Thanksgiving menu.

Trade observations on what works best. This can be a great educational way to discover new pairing options. Take note of favorites and use this to help select wines for next year.

Option 2: Although we’ve never tried this on Thanksgiving, we have used a variation of Option 1 with great success. We cover the bottles and organize the wines into a fairly informal blind tasting. Here’s how it works:

Ask guests to bring either a red or white wine.

On Thanksgiving, as the wines are assembled, separate reds and whites, so you have two categories.

Place the bottles in paper bags and place a number on each bag.

Include a note card and pencil as part of the place setting for guests to keep track of favorites.

Encourage guests to try at least a tasting pour of each offering.

At the end of the meal, using a simple show of hands, determine which red and white wine were the crowd favorites.

Then reveal the contents of each bag.

By adding this touch of mystery to the pairing, you help eliminate preconceived notions about specific wine. It’s also just a great party game. With a minimum of effort, you can add a new element to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Keeping It Local

Particularly when we have guests from out of town, we like to showcase some local wines. I reached out to a few local winemakers to find out which wine they might choose, if invited to dinner on Thanksgiving.

Doug Fabbioli, owner-winemaker at Fabbioli Cellars, said he “usually recommends Chambourcin. It is a great crowd pleaser, lighter style red that can match up well with traditional and non-traditional meals. The bright fruit and acid can work with the turkey and the cranberry sauce.” He refers to it as “Virginia’s Chianti!”

Over at Greenhill Vineyards, winemaker Sébastien Marquet was emphatic about taking “the Philosophy 2015,” which is their high-end red blend. “This wine,” he went on to say, “is incredible, and I would say you are lucky because the wine is not released yet.”

“I would take our 2015 Red Spark sparkling Norton,” said winemaker Katie DeSouza of Casanel Vineyards, “because bubbles pair with everything! Being a red sparkler, it will definitely pair with the main course (turkey) but is also equally delicious with cranberry sauce and all the fixings. Our Red Spark has a wonderful brightness to it, coming from both the tiny bubbles and nice acidity, with red berry flavors throughout the mid palate.”

Melanie Natoli, winemaker at Cana Vineyards, thought the question was easy. Rosé is so food friendly, she pointed out, it goes with everything. “[The Cana] 2016,” Melanie added, “has great acid to pair with food and some nice structure that will hold up to most everything on the Thanksgiving table.”

At the end of the day, there’s no reason to be intimidated or to stress over “the perfect wine.” You can look for advice online, ask for assistance at your local wine shop or enquire at a local tasting room. Alternately, leave it up to your guests and have some fun with the pairings. ML

Brian Yost blogs as The Virginia Grape and writes for a number of local, regional and national publications. His articles concentrate on wine trends and wineries in the Eastern United States.

Find more of his writing at thevirginiagrape.com.