Thanksgiving Dinner Wine Pairings

Thanksgiving day is almost here – have you picked your wine yet? 

Thanksgiving dinner is often a big meal with many different dishes from turkey to gravy covered mashed potatoes, green beans, yams, stuffing, and so much more. It can be difficult to find just one wine that pairs perfectly with all these foods so it’s often more important to progress through wines to refresh your palate. Acidic wines tend to open up the palate while tannic wines close the palette. Bubbly or effervescent wines can also help refresh your palate. 

Even before your meal you can start with an aperitif – generally a dry wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, or unoaked Chardonnay. Another popular option is dry sparkling wine or Champagne. Look for ratings of extra dry, brut, or extra brute to make sure it’s not too sweet. 

Once your meal is started, bring the aperitif wines to the table because those same wines that help open the palate before dinner will be very refreshing during the meal and help cut through some of the overly rich flavors and textures. In addition to those aperitif wines, reach for some aromatic whites. These wines tend to be just a little sweeter but can pair well with the herbal and salty flavors of the meal. Examples include Chenin Blanc, Torrontés, and Gewürztraminer. Riesling and Moscoto can also be good choices as long as they are not too sweet. 

Rosé and sparkling rosé also make a great complement to Thanksgiving dinner because they offer crisp, fruity notes that pair well with rich flavors. Again, avoid anything that’s overly sweet. Rosé of Pinot Noir and Brut sparkling rosé are popular options to look for. 

As you progress through dinner, reach for a light- or medium-bodied red wine. Red wines with bright, red fruit notes can offer a great contrast to the buttery rich flavors of the meal, not unlike cranberry sauce after a bite of turkey. But make sure to avoid astringent or tannic wines. Beaujolais and Pinot Noir are classic Thanksgiving dinner pairings, but other options include Syrah, Merlot, Zweigelt, and Sangiovese

After dinner, you’ll want wines that pair well with dessert. The sweeter the dessert, the sweeter your paired wine should be – otherwise your wine will taste harshly acidic and your dessert will taste flabby. Another rule of thumb is to pair the color of your dessert with the color of your wine. That is, lighter desserts like cheesecake tend to pair better with lighter wines where dark chocolate desserts will pair better with red wines with dark berry flavors. Lighter options include Riesling, Moscosot, and Sauternes. Darker options include Zinfandel, Shiraz, and berry wines. And don’t forget your port options. Tawny Port, with notes of caramel, apricot, walnut, and baking spices, this can make an excellent pairing with apple or pumpkin pie. Red Ports and flavored Ports can also pair well with decadent desserts or even be a dessert on their own.  

Pairing Wine & Wild Game

Wild game, whether it is elk, venison, antelope, rabbit, or game bird, tends to have a robust, rich flavor. For this reason it can make an excellent pairing with wine – if the right wine is selected. Depending on the recipe and the game species, great wine options might include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Barolo, Zinfandel, Beaujolais, red Bordeaux, and Merlot. To help you make the right selection, here are several rules of thumb to follow: 

  1. Match the weight of the food to the weight of the wine. 
    • Wild game tends to be rich in flavor, but it generally lacks the fat content of commercial meats. Unless the sauce or broth accompanying the meat adds fat, a wine that is too robust or too tannic can seem overly harsh or even make the meal fall flat. Pick a wine that is medium bodied (12.5-13.4% ABV) or full bodied (>13.5% ABV) with some subtle sweetness and smooth tannins. 
  2. Pair your wine with the seasoning or sauce, not just the meat.
    • Like the dark meat on your holiday turkey or a roasted rack of lamb, wild game begs to be cooked with rich spices, herbs, and often, fruit. Wild game meats are often cooked with tart fruits such as cherries, cranberries, and apples. Herbs are also common including rosemary, juniper, parsley, garlic, and black pepper. When choosing a wine it is important to complement the flavors in your specific recipe. 
  3. Let the meal be the star of the show. 
    • It’s important to pick a wine that will compliment the flavors of the meat without overshadowing it. Meals made with wild game tend to have enough complex flavors, adding an overly complex wine to the mix can be too much for your pallet to handle. Steer clear of long-aged, expensive, or reserve bottles or you risk the wine stealing the show. 

I recently had the opportunity to talk with two local wine makers about their wines and how they would recommend pairing them with wild game.

 Nicole Erickson, owner of Unleashed Winery described their Pinot Noir as having a bouquet of red fruit with a palate of Bing cherries and candied notes. She mentioned that she’s tried this wine with both kangaroo and duck, both of which made excellent pairings. Nicole also described their Syrah as having a slight smokiness in addition to dark fruits that would make an excellent choice for serving with elk steaks. 

Duck is a rich, fatty meat with flavors closer to steak than chicken. It pairs well with lighter reds that have soft tannins and bright, fruit flavors. Try this tasty recipe for roast duck with clove and thyme with the Tail Wag Pinot Noir from Unleashed Winery.

When cooking elk, try this step by step guide for using a reverse-searing method for great flavor and maintaining moisture. Elevate the meal by topping it with caramelized onions and mushrooms. Pair it with Full Moon Syrah from Unleashed Winery.

Winemaker at White Raven Winery, Dan Murphy, recommended both the Marquette and the Zinfandel for pairing with wild game. Marquette is a cold-hardy grape that is grown locally in Montana and has its heritage in Pinot Noir. Dan described the wine’s flavor as cherry, blackberry, balck pepper, and spice and recommended pairing it with venison stew. The Zinfandel has notes of berry jam, plums, and baked fruits which he recommended serving with grilled antelope. 

The rich, earthy flavors of venison pair well with medium-bodied wines such as Syrah, Zinfandel, and Merlot. We love this pairing of rich venison stew with juniper berries and rosemary with the dark fruit and spice notes of White Raven Winery’s Marquette.

Antelope can be quite flavorful and is often described as having hints of sage. It pairs well with rich fruit flavors. Next time you grill up antelope steaks, try topping it with this scrumptious huckleberry BBQ sauce recipe and pairing it with a Zinfandel from White Raven Winery.

For more food and wine pairing suggestions and links to recipes, check out our website at or follow us on Instagram and Facebook at @uvaewine.