Tastings: No strict rules for picking 'right' wine for Thanksgiving

At our house, the only hard and fast guideline for choosing the wines for Thanksgiving is that they must come from American vineyards.

As much as I love old-world wines, for this uniquely American holiday I never look beyond our domestic production. I plan this year to narrow that definition even further and purchase from Pennsylvania winemakers.

We will toast the Pilgrims by pouring gewurztraminer and cabernet franc from Briar Valley Vineyards in Bedford, and an ice wine from Mazza Vineyards on Lake Erie.

This is one holiday where the menu can cover such a wide variety of flavors that the wine choices are infinite, too. Because wine and food pairing is more an art than a science, there are no strict rules, but a few guidelines can help.

The main consideration is to keep everything in balance. Weight is the most important issue. Match mild, light foods with lightly flavored wine and heavier dishes with bolder, big-profile wine. Foods that are rich require a weighty wine. Chardonnay, for example, is heavier than sauvignon blanc, so would be preferred for a heavy dish you want to pair with a white grape. Syrah is a heavier red than pinot noir.

A rich meal will also benefit from the palate cleansing effects of wines that have ample acids and tannins. Sweetness in dishes (such as sweet potatoes with marshmallows) should be balanced with an off-dry wine such as riesling or gewurztraminer. Pies or desserts (such as Ginger Snap Bread Pudding with Molasses Cabernet Sauce) scream for a fortified sweet wine. My preference would be a tawny port, but the good ones are imported so I'd probably substitute a domestic ice wine that has a heavy dose of residual sugar -- such as Pacific Rim Riesling Vin de Glaciere, 2007 -- or something from the muscat grape -- perhaps Eberle Muscat Canelli, which can be ordered from Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District (412-391-1709).

Always stick to your personal preference. If off-dry or semi-sweet wines are more pleasing to you than totally dry ones, then you should go for that type.

Well-suited grape varieties for Thanksgiving menus are:

For white:

Riesling, gewurztraminer, chardonnay, viognier, marsanne and chenin blanc (either off-dry or dry).

For red:

Pinot noir, grenache, cabernet franc, syrah and zinfandel.

It's a good time to veer from the same labels you frequently buy. Branch out. Try something unfamiliar. Take a stroll down the aisles of a Premium Wine and Spirit Shop to see what is available. Don't forget to check out the Chairman's Selections on display at the front of the store to find exceptional bargains. For the store nearest you, go to the LCB website's "product search."

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Elizabeth Downer: edowner@post-gazette.com .


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