You’re throwing a holiday gathering for a few friends. You want the vibe to be upbeat and upscale, but you don’t want to break the bank with beverage costs. What do you serve?
Why, wine, of course. You are well past the kegger days, and stocking the liquor cabinet for everyone’s cocktail preferences is too varied and expensive. The right wines can lend elegance and sophistication to your affair. Wine pairs well with food and can help you keep costs in line. Your friends may even make some exciting wine discoveries among the glasses you pour.
But there’s the rub. How do you choose from among the literally thousands of wines available today? How do you serve them properly? And is that $100 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon you covet really 50 times better than the Two Buck Chuck that has become your everyday plonk?
Here are some ideas to help you better navigate the thickets and vineyards of Wine Service 101.
Decide on a theme. Yes, it’s the holiday season, but everyone will be taking the same old winter-wonderland approach. You can, too, of course, but by adding a creative or thematic spin to the event, the décor or the menu you can make your gathering memorable.
Your angle will help you choose the wine to serve. Spanish tapas, for example, cry out for Spanish wines. The same strategy can be used for food and wine pairings from other countries.
Pick wines that pair with your menu. If your theme is an eclectic mix of influences and flavors, you can still match your wines to your menu. Everyone knows a big, bold red wine goes with red meat and bold sauces, but few people realize that a bright, fruity white pairs well with Asian food. What you decide to serve on the plate should determine what you pour in the glass.
Vary your selection. Experienced wine drinkers enjoy new discoveries, but many people have a preferred wine. As much as possible, offer a mix beyond mere red and white choices, with an eye toward a little creativity.
Your range of reds could include a robust cabernet sauvignon, a rustic and chewy zinfandel, or a more refined and transparent pinot noir. These days, more U.S. winemakers are experimenting with creative blends — a technique traditional to French wine production. A range of blends offers your cab aficionado and your zin fan different variations on familiar themes.
White wine fanciers tend to come in two main varieties, those who like oaky, buttery chardonnays — and everyone else. There is nothing like a sophisticated chard, but there is a lot to be said for tart, citrusy sauvignon blanc or a soft, supple riesling. Trade up your white wine drinkers by offering them a bright New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a drier, more refined Riesling from France’s Alsace region. They will appreciate the lesson and may even find a new wine to love.
Have the proper stemware available. Some people pride themselves on drinking Champagne from old jelly jars, but then some people just don’t know any better. You may not have the bucks to invest in a full line of Riedel stemware, but the right glass completes the wine in the same way the right frame enhances a painting.
Red wine should be served in stemmed goblets with bowls large enough to capture and deliver the aroma, which is an integral part of wine enjoyment. White wines generally have lighter aromas and work well in stemware with smaller bowls.
The glass itself should be completely transparent — no color shades — so the drinker can check the wine’s color and transparency. Thinner glass does a better job of dispersing the wine’s various flavor elements to different spots on the palate and tongue, resulting in a more complete and comprehensive taste profile.
Sparkling wine drinkers should invest in Champagne flutes. The hollow-stemmed glasses are specifically designed to showcase the fun columns of bubbles rising in the glass.
Serve your wine at the proper temperature. The old adage that red wine should be served at room temperature evolved when the average room temperature in drafty European castles was 55 to 60 degrees. The most common mistake in serving wine today, in fact, is that red wine is served too warm and white wine is served too cold.
Temperature plays a role in unlocking a wine’s flavor. Chill wine too thoroughly and the flavors become muted, or not apparent at all. Serve a wine that’s too warm, especially a big red, and the alcohol may dominate the palate, muting the more refined and subtle flavors.
Red wines should be served at between 60 and 65 degrees, and white wines between 45 and 50 degrees. An easy way to accomplish this is to refrigerate your reds for 45 minutes before serving, and, if you store your whites in the fridge, take them out and let them warm up for 30 minutes before serving. You will be surprised what a difference this technique will make.
Finally, don’t forget the water. Despite being a beverage, alcohol also is a dehydrator. The more wine you drink, the thirstier your body will become.
To combat this, serve your wine with water on the side. In addition to stretching your wine budget, the water will refresh your guests, can be used to cleanse their palates between glasses and help to mitigate the alcohol’s intoxicating effects.
Even if you serve bottled water, it’s an inexpensive way to let your guests know you want them to have the best possible time at your gathering. And that’s what good hosting is all about.