In theory, wine pairings sound all sophisticated and classy. Pair a juicy red steak with a heavy cab or seafood with a mineral-y white wine, you know the drill. But does anyone really care aside from you? You can Google “best white wine to pair with seafood” all day long, but Google doesn’t know your exact palate—and neither do I. And neither do the most outstanding sommeliers and wine professionals; however, they do have a good idea of what generally goes well with what.
“Unless you are trying to pair a massive Napa Cab with caviar, pairings are superfluous,” says Emilie Kapp, sommelier and owner of Chestnut Street Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. “My philosophy is that if you are drinking delicious juice, pairings are outdated,” she adds. Mostly, dinner parties and gatherings should be reserved for nothing but pure fun. “Sure, there is a time and place for elaborate wine pairings that emphasize the intricacies of a certain mushroom with the terroir of a wine with grapes grown in the same parcel—but that's not what we're really doing at most of our dinner parties,” notes Kapp. If seeking a true food and wine pairings situation, save it for a fancy dinner out where expert pairings are left to, you guessed it, the experts.
Plus, if you’re too concerned about wines instead of your guests, you’ve missed the entire point of dinner and that’s the togetherness. “If you are worrying more about the wine pairing than you are about how you can best serve your guests and give them that warm embrace of genuine hospitality, it won't matter what you pour,” says Michael Kennedy, sommelier and Vitner/Founder of Vin Fraîche.
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“Pairings are all about elevating a food and wine experience—so when you do that, the food and wine should be the main focus,” says Shawn Paul, Wine Operations Director of Foxcroft Wine Co. “Food and wine are certainly a part of gatherings but you don’t want them to hijack the focus of why you’re there in the first place,” Paul adds. Enjoy the time and feel free to talk about a wine that you are obsessed with currently, but don’t get all serious. Chances are your best friend and sister don’t care if the blah blah blah wine from blah blah blah region pairs effortlessly with a whipped ricotta crostini.
Here, a few rules and tips for choosing wines that are all food friendly.
Sharing is Infectious, No Matter What
I love to serve great wine at dinner parties, but mostly it’s all about making my friends feel comfortable and welcome—while casually opening their eyes to new wines and such. “If you bring a wine that you love, with a story or without, you are sharing something you love and that is infectious,” says Kapp. “Focus more on the company and less on the rules.” Bring out wines that you truly enjoy and the rest will be a breeze.
When in Doubt, Grab Bubbles
“Champagne,” Kennedy notes, as his go-to if he could pick only one wine for a dinner party. You can’t go wrong with bubbles. But don’t worry about the spendy, trendy labels such as Veuve Clicquot. Kapp suggests grabbing a bottle of Pet Nat, a “funky” Crémant de Bourgogne or an “easy drinking” Cava. “Bubbles are amazing because they can easily be turned into an elegant cocktail (add a bottle of raspberry lambic and a raspberry in each glass and you have a gorgeous cocktail everyone can enjoy) and I firmly believe that bubbles can go with anything” she adds.
If Bubbles Aren’t Your Thing, Reach for A Pinot Noir
Bubbles aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if you’re looking to please a crowd with a red—which isn’t the easiest task—I’d search for a delicious but not too overpowering pinot noir. Kennedy is a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills that’s “light enough and fruity enough to please both ends of the spectrum.”
Cheese Board Wine
An easy solution to any cheese and charcuterie spread? Rosé. “Rosé isn’t just for summer,” says Kapp. “Some of them can be really complex and pair really well with food.” Also remember rosé is basically red grapes with a shorter skin contact period. “They are easy to drink on their own but also can perk up a cheese board or paté spread,” she adds, so don’t think twice about serving the delicious pink drink outside of summer season.
Skip Heavier Reds
Kennedy notes that heavier reds can get tricky. “Most Cabernet-based wines at this level of availability are not much to write about,” he adds, when speaking of readily available, grocery store wines. “I'd honestly opt for something like Woodbridge if this style is a must, but would set my expectations at airline-wine quality,” he says. “I've started seeing some phenomenal (high-end Bordeaux, high-end Napa) wines at stores like Trader Joe's and national grocers like Costco and Kroger as well.”
…And Stick with Zinfandel
No, not that zinfandel (A.K.A. the blush-colored white zinfandel you probably drank from a box in college—I know I sure did). We’re talking about the good stuff: red zinfandel. “No matter what style of Zinfandel you choose, it’s a very food-friendly wine with a good level of acidity and concentration,” says Paul. “It can be a lot of different things and comes in many different styles—Old World and New World—there’s just something about the flavors in a well made Zinfandel that play well with a lot of different dishes.”
Avoid Intense Wines
Dinner parties aren’t a time to bring out the aggressive, super intense, super fancy wines. Keep those on reserve to enjoy solo. “Avoid things that are too intensely flavorful or assertive, because that narrows down the number of foods it can go well with,” says Paul. “Pinot Noir and Gamay are good medium-bodied reds.” Paul suggests Elk Cove Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon for food gatherings.
As a Host, YOU Pick the Wine Selection
If looking to not end up with a boatload of mediocre, typical grocery store wines, tell guests not to worry about bringing wine. “Choose your wines in advance and have something for everyone,” says Paul. “If someone really wants to bring wine with them tell them to bring whatever they like—or whatever they plan to drink during the party,” he adds. “It doesn’t really matter whether other people like it or drink it too, at least you know that person will have something they like and it takes the stress off of you as the host.”
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For Winning White Wines…
Paul recommends looking for wines with refreshing acidity such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino. If you want to go the extra mile, Kennedy’s all about white Burgundy (this also gets my personal vote). “For white I tend to always have a case of inexpensive white Burgundy around (Chardonnay from the region of Burgundy in France) because it is crisp enough for those that ‘hate buttery Chardonnay’ and it’s oaked just enough for those that love Chardonnay,” he adds. “Lately I have been loving the less expensive whites from outer regions like Macon, Saint-Aubin, Vezelay and others.”
But Most Importantly, Enjoy the Gathering
Remember, it’s not just about the food and wine—it’s about quality time with friends and family. “These are likely people you don’t see everyday or people you wish you got to spend more time with—the most important thing should be that time together,” says Kennedy. “Don’t let the wine overshadow that but the wine can certainly add to the celebration and bring people together.”
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