Choosing Wines for Dinner Parties
THE FIRST COURSE
It is traditional to serve a dry white with the first course as a prelude to a more concentrated red with the main dish; white Burgundy followed by claret is the archetypal, if predictable, pattern. It is fun, and instructive, to serve different wines with each course, but the main thing is that they go well with the food being served. A light Italian red such as a young Chianti or Valpolicella would be lovely with a plate of salami and other antipasti, for instance. Dry sherry and Madeira are traditional with meat- and fish-based soups and serve as a good reminder that you can always ask your guests to continue with any wines they were drinking as aperitifs, so long as they are not too sweet for the food.
THE MAIN COURSE
Almost any dryish wine will probably taste fine with almost anything you plan to serve as a main course. You may feel, however, that you want to serve a wine that will be just right as opposed to merely acceptable. Remember to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine, so that hearty stews are washed down with a fairly robust wine whereas delicate raw ingredients lightly cooked, such as poached fish or white meats, are flattered by a lightweight wine. Take a cue from the geographical origins of the dish. Pasta really does taste good with Italian reds. Red Burgundy seems perfect with coq au vin. Plainish roasts and steaks seem to allow the complexities of claret to speak for themselves. And a goulash would provide a good excuse for the inexpensive Bulls Blood.
The French serve cheese before anything sweet, on the principle that it is the ideal foil for any red wine that may be left from the main course. This certainly makes sense if your guests are sufficiently “abstemious, although in wine-minded households the cheese can herald the appearance of the grandest wine of the meal. Contrary to popular belief, English cheeses are probably a better accompaniment to wine than many French – particularly the soft ones such as Brie and Camembert that can often get rather strongly ammoniac. Most red wines taste even more delicious with cheese, which seems to soften their rough edges. However, a very salty cheese such as Roquefort or Stilton can take a strong and very sweet wine. Sauternes and port are, respectively, traditional liquid accompaniments.
Since any sweet dish emphasizes the acidity in any wine, it calls for something that is fairly full-bodied and either as sweet or more so. This means that the light German wines are best enjoyed without food, while Sauternes and rich Muscats, such as the popular one from Beaumes-de-Venise, go splendidly with sweeter foods.