When you are hosting a dinner party or supper club, decide in advance what wines you would like to serve, selecting ones that will complement your menu. If you are planning a party where everybody contributes a bottle of wine, ask each guest to bring a different wine until all the wine slots are filled. If you have friends who are interested in wine, you might even want to hold an informal wine tasting.
The first consideration for a dinner party is whether to plan the wine around the food or vice versa. In most cases, the menu usually comes first, but if you want to show off a special wine or series of wines, then work forward from the wine.
Planning the Menu
In general, it is most satisfactory to move from lighter to heavier foods and wines. Plan the menu course by course?or wine by wine?and decide which wines will work best with each dish.
How Many Wines
For a simple dinner shared with good friends, you might prefer to open only one wine and serve it right through to the dessert or cheese and fruit course. If the wine is to be in the spotlight, however, you could serve a different wine with each course, in which case you will need to consider glassware. If you do not have enough glasses for each course and want to avoid washing them between courses, take a cue from wine professionals: When you are finished with one course and wine, pour a small amount of the next wine into the glass, swirl it briefly, then empty it into a pitcher or dump bucket. This works perfectly well going from white to red wine, but less well going from red to white.
Before you sit down to dinner, a glass of sparkling wine is always a welcome aperitif. Alternatively, you could serve a white wine, such as Chardonnay, Mosel or a light Alsace wine. A classic aperitif is a well-chilled Fino or Manzanilla sherry. The distinctive flavor of sherry, combined with its delicate aromas, makes it a memorable welcoming drink. It is always a good idea to serve appetizers with the opening drinks. Olives or salted nuts go particularly well with a glass of dry sherry.
Wines that can segue from one course to the next should also be considered. For example, you might start the meal with a soup of clams and garlic, served with a medium-weight California or Australian Chardonnay. The next course could be grilled ahi tuna, which would also pair well with the Chardonnay. A mature red Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon would be a good choice with a grilled steak in red wine sauce and could be continued into the cheese course that follows.
The choice of a dessert wine depends on the meal preceding it. If it has been an extensive and heavy meal, you might want to serve a lighter, less alcoholic wine, such as a sweet Riesling or Muscat. For serving after dinner, the classic digestif is a tawny or vintage port.
For a four-hour party with a few nondrinkers, most caterers recommend one-half to three-fourths of a bottle of wine per person. Of course, your knowledge of your guests may alter this rule of thumb. Most hosts would prefer to have wine left over than to run out before the guests leave. Many wine merchants will let you return unopened bottles.
Hosting a Wine-Tasting Party
The pleasures of a wine tasting are twofold: first, acquainting guests with new wines, and second, the participation and enjoyment of each guest. Once you have selected a theme, hosting a wine-tasting party is easier than you would imagine.
Choosing a Theme
The theme for a tasting can come from a favorite grape variety, with a sampling of wines from around the world or from various U.S. wineries. Or you might concentrate on one type of wine, such as Chianti from Tuscany or Shiraz from Australia. And for a celebratory theme, Champagnes and sparkling wines are incomparable.
After deciding on the theme, ask each guest to bring one bottle of wine that suits the theme. To be sure that all the wines fall within a certain quality range, specify a price range: for example, Zinfandels between $12 and $25. And if your focus is white wines, be sure to remind guests to chill their selections beforehand.
Planning the Event
If the guest list is small, the entire group can sit around a table. But for larger gatherings, place the opened bottles on a sideboard and encourage your guests to sample the wines as they wish. Either way, each participant will need a napkin, pencil and paper for note taking, a water glass and, of course, plenty of wineglasses. Use a beverage bucket or a compact wine cooler to keep white wines chilled. If it is a sparkling wine or Champagne tasting, stoppers will be needed to keep the bubbles bubbling once the bottles are opened.
So that guests will not have to spend time copying down names of wines, slip a numbered tag around the neck of each bottle. They can simply record the numbers of the wines they like. The names of the wines can be matched to the numbers later.
As for food, a wine tasting requires the participants to use their senses to appreciate flavor differences among the wines, so it is best not to make the task more difficult by serving complex foods. Simple, mild-flavored canapés, hors d’oeuvres and finger foods or a selection of great breads and cheeses work best. If the wine you are serving is from a particular country or region, complement it with foods from that area.
As informative as it is enjoyable, a wine-tasting party is an event that you and your guests will remember long after the last bottle of wine has been emptied.