What a Sommelier Drinks on Thanksgiving

While on the mend from a recent illness, I have had plenty of time to think about the upcoming holidays.  I’ve already had some of my friends ask for suggestions for pairings but one question has come up over and over:

  • So, you are a chef and a sommelier…what do you drink on Thanksgiving?

It’s an interesting question.  Let’s start of by first noting that this is my second Thanksgiving since I’m Canadian and I had my first one in October.  However, since I live in Michigan and I can still see some snow outside on the ground, now I have to contemplate on what I’m going to have.

I’ve recently changed my diet to more of a plant based focused menu.  No, I’m not giving up meat (especially brined smoked turkey or a smoked Prime Rib).  However, this has caused me to think more about pairings and what could work for the menu.

My focus has not changed; I still believe that the wine is static so I need to pair the food to the wine in question.  But, if I have less meat, I probably have more complex flavors from the different and now more numerous selections of vegetables and salads.  Not to mention, I can’t feel heavy for my run out on Black Friday to shop (Yes, I’m one of those that goes out early in the morning).  So, what does a sommelier come up with?

There are two staples that are automatic on Thanksgiving Day:

  • A mimosa at breakfast, and
  • A Pinot Noir at dinner at some point.

Let me take a moment to explain why I have both of these and it’s not just due to tradition.


Ok, the mimosa actually started on my first trip to Napa.  I was staying at a great little bed and breakfast in the middle of the Petrified forest just northwest of Calistoga.   Due to the time change, I woke up early and was sitting outside on the patio.  I looked up at the tree over my head and come to find out it was filled with oranges.  A few squeezes later with some leftover Champagne and I had breakfast. 

I love Champagne but it tends to be a bit pricey to mix with juice.  I could use a Prosecco or Moscato which are great options.  However, I love more complexity in my base wine.  Now for years, I have had students explain to me that a $4 bottle of sparkling anything will work.  Um…no.  Thanksgiving for me is a major change:

  • Christmas is near so I’m finishing my decorations
  • It really starts to get colder and Winter is near,
  • It’s a kick off to the rushed holiday season,
  • But most important, it’s a time to honestly give thanks for the positive aspects of the year and to use some of my garden harvest.

Therefore, I wish to start the day with something special and that for me is Cava.  Cava is a sparkling wine made in Spain using Method Champenoise.  Summed up, it’s the same method used to make Champagne but it uses Spanish grapes (Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello) instead.  It undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  It also is allowed to sit on the dead yeast cells in the bottle for an aging period that helps to develops complex aromas and flavors.  The best aspect of Cava is that for a top, high quality bottle is typically half the price of a Champagne.

My blend is 2 oz of tangerine juice to approx. 4 oz of Cava.  This is estimated since each brand of Cava is slightly different and it also depends on how sweet you like your drink.  The tangerine juice that I get from Costco (Trader Joe’s is also good) is slightly sweet so I find I play with the ratio a bit each time.   If you can find Satsuma mandarins, I would fresh squeeze these for my drink.   Both are chilled prior to mixing and I serve it in either a flute or rocks glass (just depends on which one I reach for first).  Very simple but refreshing and gets my mind set for lighting the smoker and getting it prepared for the day.

Pinot Noir

For dinner, I will typically serve a Pinot Noir.  For years, when recommending wines for Thanksgiving, I always have focused on Pinot Noir and nothing else.  I believe that overall, its one of the best grape varieties to serve for this meal for a few reasons.

  1. The Grape Itself.

Pinot noir is an interesting grape.  It has moderate acid levels and low tannins.  It does not have a distinctive mouthfeel that makes it stand out from other varieties.  Aromas consist of red fruits such as cranberries and unripe strawberries.  Some books have given Pinot Noir the aroma of barnyard.  I really do not like this description because it makes you think of animals.  What they are referring to is a musty smell from an old barn (no animals).  I like to describe it as walking into a rare book store and smelling the old books.  Its flavor can be described as leather and mushrooms along with cherries and unripe strawberries.  Personally, I add cranberries to the flavor profile as well.

While I feel that the overall best Pinot Noir is grown in Burgundy France, there are amazing wines being produced in Oregon.  I took a trip there a few years ago to exclusively drink Pinot Noir and was amazed at the depth of flavors from the area of Willamette.

2.  The Food Options

It’s traditional to serve either a turkey or ham and sometimes both for the main entrée for Thanksgiving.  We can go back and study why this became tradition (https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving).  However, even in Canada during my younger years, we always had turkey for Thanksgiving and ham for Christmas.

Let’s look at the entrees.  Turkeys are pretty mild in flavor (and tends to be dry since most people only cook one a year).  Here’s a great experiment…take a small piece of turkey this year that’s plain (not injected, no gravy, sauce, etc.)  and taste it.  It tends to have a bit of an earthy flavor and almost kind of bland.  Once we add other flavors (from injections, deep frying, cranberry sauce, etc.) is when we tend to taste more.  What we taste are these flavors since turkey readily accepts them well.  It’s the same for ham.  Remove the injections, sauces, and rubs and you will find that its also earthy in flavor.  Pinot Noir goes exceptionally well with both meats.

3.  The Sides

It seems like tradition is regionally based when it comes to the side dishes served at Thanksgiving.  In Texas, you have to have Jiffy Cornbread.  In the north, you must serve the green bean casserole with the fried onions.  In South Carolina, you had to have either collard greens, sweet potatoes or both.

In all of these cases, you most likely will have some type of gravy (did I mention dry turkey earlier) and cranberry sauce.  Cranberry sauce is a staple in Michigan here since Wisconsin grows the largest number of cranberries in the US.

Think of how well Pinot Noir works with most sides.  Earthy tones match most of the root dishes.  I like to serve a wild rice/ wild mushroom/ currant casserole each year which is amazing with the wine.  The wine acids rinse your palate clean so you can enjoy the next bite.  The flavors match and do not mask the foods that we are having.  Also, considering the addition of cranberry sauce in each bite (food mixing on your plate) helps Pinot Noir to shine.

Final Thoughts

If you have not tried either of my selections, give them a try and tell me what you think.  I hope and pray that everyone has a safe and incredible Thanksgiving holiday.  I hope that Black Friday sales are good to you and you actually can enjoy shopping that day.  Up in Michigan, it truly was enjoyable last year with everyone being polite. 

Please drink responsibly, relax and enjoy the season.  After a hard day of cooking and eating, I’ll finish with a great hot cocoa  (https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-your-own-hot-cocoa-mix-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-200646), put up some decorations and fall asleep watching football.



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