Holiday Dinner Wine Pairing Guide

With so much care put into designing just the right dishes, flavors and textures of your holiday menu, don’t do them a gross disservice by neglecting to find the perfect wine pairing to complement and enrich your dining experience.

So the holiday season has arrived, and you want to turn your dinner into something memorable. You've worked for weeks on the menu, (or you hired us to prepare and serve it for you). What's left? Pairing the perfect wines to go with that special meal. Curating a masterfully planned wine pairing list to go with your dinner isn't an easy feat, but moderate wine consumption will amplify the flavors of fat and salt, making those rich holiday meals that much more delicious and your menu more memorable.

two people clinking glasses of white wine.

The Best White Wine for Holiday Dinners 

The best white wine for a more traditional holiday meal, like Thanksgiving is an acidic white wine with lower alcohol content. If you take a look at traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner menus, they are notoriously salty and fatty, and acidic wines cut through the richness and high salt content of those main and side dishes.

  • Look to white wines like Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, Viognier, or even Chardonnay.

Spices commonly found in traditional holiday dishes such as clove and nutmeg become spicy or sometimes even muddy to the pallet when they're consumed with high alcohol content beverages. To avoid throwing your palate into a tailspin while enjoying a dish like candied sweet potatoes, always opt for a lower alcohol content wine.

champagne being poured into flutes.

The Best Sparkling Wines for Holiday Dinners 

I feel that sparkling wine is the most under-utilized wine style when pairing. Sparkling wine, champagne, or Prosecco are a great universal choice to pair with holiday fare. Sparkling wine's effervescence and bright acidity, offer welcome relief from the heaviness of traditional rich dishes. A Demi Sec or even a Sec champagne pair nicely with holiday desserts like pumpkin, pecan, custard, and apple pies.

There are many different types of bubbly, which one is your favorite?

  • Traditional French Champagne or Cremant
  • Italian Prosecco
  • German Sekt
  • California Sparkling Wine
red wine being poured into a glass.

The Best Red Wines for Holiday Dinners 

The best red wines for traditional holiday meals are those milder varietals that will complement, not overpower, your food. Red wines with fruit forward or spicy flavor profiles are perfect to bring additional flavors forward, enhance balance, and clean the palate back up after each bite.

Look to varietals such as:

  • Pinot Noir: smooth, fruity, lower alcohol
  • Syrah: oaky, spicy, rich & rounded
  • Tempranillo: smokey, spicy, and exotic

Which wines go best with non-traditional holiday menus? 

spicy beef tostada topped with guacamole and cilantro with cotija cheese

Wines for Non-traditional holiday dinners:

Not everyone celebrates the holidays with turkey, gravy or stuffing! But what wines should they look to? 

Wine Pairings for Spicy Holiday Meals:

If you are dining on food with a variety of spices and heat such as cumin, jerk seasoning, hot peppers, Thai chilies, heavy herbs, or curry, you’ll want to find a perfect wine to soothe the palate without being cloying. Stick with wines that are crisp, light, and refreshing. Avoid those with especially bold, oaky notes or huge tannins to pair with spicy holiday dishes. Higher-acidity wines are ideal for toning down the palatal burning heat produced by eating spicy dishes. On the flip side, look to sweeter wines with fruit forward notes or a touch of residual sugar in them to create a harmonious balance between heat and spice.

  • Riesling: acidic and crisp, fruity
  • Viognier: floral, tropical and stone fruits, aromatic
  • Pinot Noir: smooth tannins, bright acidity, balanced fruit
  • Zinfandel: light-bodied, fruit forward, soft tannins  

Wine Pairings for Meat-Free Holiday Menus:

Whether you’re planning a vegan, vegetarian, or just a meat-free holiday dinner. Pasta courses are a great alternative, or addition, to the traditional holiday turkey dinner. From classic lasagna to a seasonal winter-inspired risotto, these pasta dishes can be decadent, cheesy, flavorful and oh so delicious. Pair your rich vegetarian, vegan, pasta, or risotto dishes with earthy, bold wines to complement bolder spices and bright herbs.

  • Pinot Grigio: citrusy, melony, and smooth
  • Chardonnay: green apple notes, citrusy and sometimes buttery
  • Cabernet Franc: spicy and earthy, floral and rich
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: dark cherry fruit, leather, tobacco, and spice
oven roasted turkey being carved

Which wine goes best with turkey?

If you're going to select only a single varietal, the wine that goes best with turkey is Pinot Noir. In the wine pairing world, Pinot Noir is the quintessential pairing for poultry due to its light to medium body, velvety tannin structure, and subtle fruit and earthy notes. Pinot Noir is so versatile that it pairs well with a wide variety of turkey preparation methods, roasted, fried, grilled, smoked, etc... Its bright acidity will bring out the most succulent parts of any turkey dish.

Turkey meat has a subtle flavor profile that will pair beautifully with many different wines. Determining what wine goes well with your turkey depends on which cut of turkey meat you're serving, and how you plan to prepare it.

Wine Pairings with Turkey and Gravy:

Dry Riesling (Reisling Kabinett from Germany) Dry riesling's bright acidity balances out the richness of turkey and stuffing, and cleans and refreshes the palate after each bite.

Gamay (Gamay Beaujolais, Beaujolais Nouveau)This smooth-textured red grape offers a balanced yet fruity and juicy mouthfeel that pairs well with both white and dark meat. Gamay's light to medium light body enhances richer side dishes without overwhelming more delicate flavors or sacrificing backnotes or undertone flavors in your dishes.

Wine Pairings with Turkey and Cranberry Sauce:

  • Red Burgundy (French Pinot Noir)The fresh fruit flavors of raspberries, red and black cherries, and blackberries found in red Burgundy from France make it a perfect pairing choice with turkey and cranberry sauce.
  • Sweet Riesling (California Riesling, or German Auslese) Sweet riesling varieties complement the natural sweetness of turkey and cranberry sauce.

Wine Pairings with Dark Meat Turkey:

  • Shiraz (Australian Shiraz, American Syrah)This bold red and moderate tanic red, has a medium to full body that goes so incredibly well with the darker parts of the turkey and of course the delicious turkey skin, which contains the fat. The fat content cuts shiraz's acidity releasing its fruity undertones. The turkey's savory flavors complement the grapes slightly peppery finish.
  • Sauvignon Blanc (American, Australian, New Zealand, French)With bright citrus flavors, elevated acidity, and a light body, sauvignon blanc provides a perfect base to wake up and cleanse the palate without overwhelming it, preparing guests to enjoy another savory bite of turkey.
  • Pinot Grigio (American, Italian)Similar to sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio revives the palate between bites, and it also offers a sweet pop of flavor and subtle notes of melon and tropical fruits to contrast the slightly rich gamey taste of turkey.

Wine Pairings with White Meat Turkey:

  • Rosé ALL DAY! (Provence France, American) Rosé is one of those special unicorn wines that carry the richness of red wine, while remaining juicy and light. Making Rosé the perfect pairing choice with white meat turkey.
  • ChablisThis is not the jug wine that your grandmother kept under the kitchen sink. Real Chablis wine comes from Burgundy, France. In contrast to other varietals such as Chardonnay, Chablis wines are rarely aged in oak barrels, producing a crisp Chardonnay variety that pairs wonderfully with turkey breast.

Wine Pairings with Fried Turkey:

  • Champagne, Sparkling Wine, ProseccoChampagne or sparkling wine's high acidity cuts the right through the fat content of a deep-fried turkey. Champagne's mild flavor blends with whatever seasonings you use in your deep-fried turkey brine.
  • Lambrusco (Emilia-Romagna, Italy)This sparkling Italian red wine's bright acidity aids in digestion (a digestivo!) and its fruit flavors serve as a pleasant contrast to savory fried turkey. If you choose to make a rich cajun style fried turkey, the low alcohol content of Lambrusco keeps your spice levels from overwhelming peoples tastebuds.

Wine Pairings with Smoked Turkey:

  • Zinfandel (California)This classic California red wine, bearing notes of sweet cherries, tobacco, and candied fruits, such as blackberries and raspberry, red zinfandel goes incredibly well with smoked turkey or the dark meat of the turkey. It also blends well with sweetly seasoned turkey, such as honey-baked or it's spicier cousin a chipotle & maple glazed turkey.
  • Malbec (Argentina, Chile, California)Rich and rustic, Old world Malbecs pair perfectly with a smoked turkey. Malbecs are usually a deep, inky purple in hue and are infused with the aromas of ripe black currants, coffee, and sometimes a backnote of fennel or anise, that will enhance the smoked flavors of your turkey.

Whatever wine you choose to pair with your holiday feasts, pop the cork, raise a glass, and toast to family, friends, and great food! Cheers!

Check out our other recipes, tips & tricks for Easy, Effortless, Entertaining from AWG Private Chefs!

About the Author:Certified Master Chef, Sommelier & Wine Educator, Sean Andrade is the executive chef/owner of AWG Private Chefs, named the #1 Private Chef company in California. Chef Sean has worked in the restaurant and hospitality industries worldwide for more than 25 years. His company AWG Private Chefs offers highly custom tailored, bespoke private chef dining experiences, and private event catering in over 30 countries around the globe.

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