Thanksgiving meals have come a long way since the days when you knew exactly what you'd be eating (turkey) and that there wouldn't be anything especially sexy to drink with it (Grandma was no oenophile). But modern families feel no shame in swapping out the standard T-Day bill of fare for all kinds of variations on game birds, ham, chicken, fish, and lamb—which makes pairings a wee bit tougher. We asked beer aficionado Joshua M. Bernstein and wine expert Anthony Giglio to share their top picks for each of the possible proteins you might encounter this holiday season. Let's start with the classic.
The all-American bird deserves an all-American wine that can stand up to all the nuances in flavor turkey has to offer—and Zinfandel is about as patriotic as it gets. Even though it's believed to have come to California from Croatia, it's not made in this style anywhere else on the planet. Generous, juicy, and spicy, with all the berry trimmings you love with turkey, it's rich, round, and balanced with bright acidity and soft, velvety tannins.
Saison, French for "season," is a rustic, farmhouse-style, dinner-friendly Belgian ale. The category king is Saison Dupont, which has been brewed on the same farm since 1844. The secret recipe owes its flavors to spring water and proprietary yeast strains, resulting in a citrusy, peppery quaff with a dry finish. Dupont can chainsaw through rich gravy while ably complementing the stuffing, potatoes, and vegetable sides.
Since classic roasted hams are often coated in sweet glazes that can throw off the acidity in dry wines, look for "off dry" (which means there's a touch of sweetness) on the label. Eroica Riesling is a collaboration between one of Germany's best Riesling-makers, Dr. Loosen, and the famed Washington winemaker Chateau Ste Michelle. Imagine sweet citrus and peach aromas plus subtle mineral notes in the nose with a tidal wave of refreshing acidity. Exactly what that ham is looking for.
To counteract cured swine's salinity and fattiness, try a snappy, hoppy pilsner such as Victory Prima Pils. Brewed with whole-flower hops, the bitter and aromatic Prima cuts its way through fat, leaving you longing for another slice, then another sip.
With a butter-basted chicken, you have two pairing choices: Contrast it with something that jolts the balance of the dish, or complement it with something that amplifies all the buttery richness. If you opt for the latter choice: Patz & Hall, with its floral aromas, is rich and round on the palate, with crisp acidity and bright minerality. Aged in French-oak barrels, it has all the creaminess you'd expect but is balanced with wave after wave of mouthwatering acidity and a touch of spicy gingerbread in the finish.
If your bird wears a crackly golden skin, then you want an amber ale such as New Belgium's Fat Tire. The beer was inspired by Colorado homebrewer Jeff Lebesch's 1989 bike ride through Belgium. Then as now, the bready, slightly nutty amber brew remains the brewery's iconic flagship. Alternately, if your bird is heavy on spices and herbs, opt for a strong French bière de garde. Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre's herbal Gavroche fits the bill.
Red wine with fish is not a new idea, but it's still a shocker for many who think that blood-red tuna or rose-colored salmon should be paired with white wine because "that's the rule." Nonsense! Given all the layers of flavor we add to fish (olive oil, butter, spices, herbs, batter, etc.), a light- to medium-bodied red is exactly right with any fish. This one, from the Green Valley appellation of southwestern Russian River Valley, boasts citrus and vanilla aromas and every berry flavor under the sun. A touch of cream in the finish gives it great weight, but it's not too heavy for even the lightest, whitest fish.
With a lighter, more delicate fish (think: trout, cod, tilapia), go with a soft, approachable wheat beer such as a hefeweizen or witbier. A longtime favorite is Maine's lightly cloudy Allagash White, which is so popular that it accounts for more than three-fourths of the brewery's sales. Founder Rob Tod's rendition is spiced with coriander and orange peel, a note that goes well with a citrus spritz.
Red meat and game birds crave wines that can stand up to all of that umami and still hold their own. Cabernet is an obvious choice, but I like the added depth of Bordeaux-inspired blends like Cain's. This special "Library Edition" of the 2004 Cain Five was just rereleased in time for Thanksgiving, and the wine has evolved beautifully. Winemaker Christopher Howell describes it thusly: "It moved from a leather armchair to a feather sofa and from a world of mountain berries and herbs to a shop of exotic spices." Game on!
Lamb is a persnickety animal to pair with beer; its gaminess bowls over lighter brews. A suitably brawny dinner-dance partner is the malty Scotch ale (a.k.a. "wee heavy"), a full-bodied dark brew with flavors of toffee and caramel echoed in the roasted exterior. I like Orkney Brewery's SkullSplitter, from an archipelago in northern Scotland. The beer offers appealing notes of plums, dried figs, and molasses, which might also pair with the spices in the dish.
• • •