The full title of this month’s tasting is “Unusual Dinner Party Wines”. It isn’t clear from the nomination or voting sheets whether this means Unusual Wines for a Dinner Party or the more challenging: Wines for an Unusual Dinner Party.

In fact it’s hard to guess what an Unusual Dinner Party might be [André Breton, Trotsky, Marilyn Monroe, Denis Bergkamp, Elizabeth I….]? Or just weird food and wine served to an ideal group [Shere Hite, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob….you can see where I’m going with this……].

Anyway, all that aside – I suppose the intention of those proposing the theme is just Unusual Wines that might be served at any old dinner party! Makes sense even though it’d be fun to decide what wine to serve to – say – André Breton???  Henri Marie’s Vin Fou, perhaps!

First things first – what is usual wine for dinner parties? At this time of year every Wine Merchant and Supermarket is publishing Gift Catalogues and web pages with cases of 6 wines for a dinner party. Ranging from Bargain, through Classic to Fine and Connoisseur – these cases often have a common format: Sparkler, two whites, two reds and a dessert wine or Port.

A good example is the Wine Society’s Ultimate Xmas Day Case (£239 if you want to organise a whip round for your favourite wine guru).

Bottles

These cases often have the same format:

A Welcome / Canapé Wine

A structured red to go with the main dish

A Wine that goes with a delicate starter

A softer red that also goes but can carry on

A Wine that copes with stronger flavours

A wine to go with cheese and/or dessert

Although one can vary the evening by allowing wines to flow from one course to the next, especially if people are having different choices. For example a sharp white welcome wine might carry on for those having fish next, whereas those having soup or paté would need a different choice.

Let’s think about these wines one by one:

The Welcome Wine
The classic is – of course – sparkling wine. Champagne for big occasions, but good Cremant, Prosecco or New World examples work fine – according to your taste, guests and budget. The other classic is dry Sherry, a Fino or Manzanilla is lovely especially with olives, and Oloroso has the benefit of being able to go with soup too. Another way to go is with some sweetness. A great aperitif is traditional German Riesling which has mouth-watering acidity and sweetness. There is also a French custom of serving Vin Doux – like Pineau de Charente – on ice before a meal. But another dry(ish) fortified wine like Marsala or Madeira is an unusual and interesting offering.

A dry White.
Sancerre or Chablis are classic choices here – clean and with enough acid to frame the first dish. They go with delicate dishes but can extend to support something richer. Most wines from other European countries, Gavi for example, are better with bigger dishes, and Alsace wines support dishes with strong aromatics and some spice too. Alboriño is a possibility. From the New World, you’ll find copies of these styles but my top tip – especially in the context of finding unusual wines – is to go for a New World wine that is a signature of that country. Think Zinfandel or Malbec rather than Cabernet or Merlot.

A Wine for stronger Entrée dishes
Chardonnay or Chenin are good candidates here (provided the Chardonnay has good acidity, Chenin invariably will – even if not bone dry). But for those feeling they are getting too much white – or as a twist – try a chill-able red. Beaujolais or Cabernet Franc (a softer Chinon or Saumur-Champigny rather than a structured Bourgeuil) are examples.

A Structured Wine for the main dish
Burgundy and Claret are the classics here, but Chianti or Borolo, Bourgeuil or Syrah, or Douro reds or Rioja can all be perfect, depending on the dish. Again a New World top tip twist would be to choose that old Bordeaux grape that now has its home in Chile: Carménère.

A Bigger Red to drink with the main dish and carry on.
Chateauneuf is the classic here (completing the old “4 Cs” idea: Champagne, Chablis, Claret, Chateauneuf), and many Grenache based examples work too.  But other big wines with a bit of softness and aroma, Salice Salentino or Zinfandel; Amarone, older Rioja Gran Reserva or Malbec can do the job.

A Wine to go with cheese and/or Dessert.
This depends a bit on what the dessert is, but Port is the classic. Push out the boat and get a vintage (something from the 1980s would be good). If the dessert has chocolate in it go for a Tawny Port and leave LBV and other versions aside – Tawny Port keeps too so you don’t have to drink it all (that’s not usually an issue to be fair…). Another option to Tawny Port is again the sweet version of Marsala or Madeira.

These are all safer options – but if cheese isn’t that important after a big meal and going straight to a dessert, a traditional dessert wine might be a better option. I rather like Loire Chenin-based dessert wines, they often have a passion fruit note that goes well with crème brulee and lighter desserts. A heavy dessert like Xmas Pud needs something very light – a sweet sparkler, even maybe Muscato d’Asti. Sweet wines based on Riesling (Germany), Semillon (Sauternes and nearby), Petit Manseng (Jurancon) and Furmint (Hungary) offer lots of choice – and there’s always white and red Vin Doux….

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