How to Pair and Serve Wines at Dinner Parties
The holiday entertaining season is right around the corner, so we may be hosting a dinner party. Often the food is easier to figure out than the wines. Here with her tips is Natalie MacLean, author of the national bestseller Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, how many wines should you serve?
Count on one to two glasses of wine per guest per hour, as people tend to drink more in the evening and at a sit-down dinner, than they do at a standing reception earlier in the day. There are 4-5 glasses of wine in a standard 750 ml bottle, so if you’re entertaining ten people for, say, three hours, counting pre-dinner and post-dinner drinks, that’s about six to eight bottles of wine.
Here are two of my top picks to serve at dinner parties:
Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2016
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment, Ontario V.Q.A., Canada
Sea Sun Pinot Noir 2021
California, United States
What about those who don’t drink wine or designated drivers?
I also like to have some local craft beer on hand, as well as non-alcoholic, still and sparkling, cider. There are an increasing number of well-made non-alcoholic wines, beers and spirits. I make sure everyone has a glass of water, and I keep those topped up so that guests don’t have to slake their thirst with alcohol, which is important as a responsible host.
What is best to serve before everyone sits down at the table?
Start with an aperitif – offer a choice of wine, beer, or non-alcoholic drink. Pre-dinner wines I recommend are:
Château de Cartes Blanc de Noir is a zesty white wine from Dunham, Quebec, that’s perfect with pre-dinner nibbles.
Château de Cartes Atout Blanc 2019
Dunham, Quebec, Canada
I also have Taittinger Nocturne, a classic Champagne for when you want to splurge.
Taittinger Nocturne Champagne
Champagne A.C., France
How do you decide the order of which wines you should serve first, second, third?
What I tell my course students is to always drink up sensory-wise, so go from light-bodied wines to more full-bodied, from dry to sweet, so that each wine is bolder than the previous one. Otherwise, if you drink a sweet wine before a bone-dry one, that dry wine will taste bitter by comparison. You’ll also want to keep in mind the dishes that you’re serving and their flavours and weights – often they’re becoming more robust with each course as well.
So after some lighter wines to start, I would go more full-bodied wines with your main course such as Beringer Main & Vine Cabernet Sauvignon and Donnafugata Sul Volcano.
Beringer Main & Vine Cabernet Sauvignon
California, United States
Donnafugata Sul Vulcano Etna Rosso 2020
What if your guests have very different wine tastes?
The beauty of serving different wines with different courses is that guests can stick with the wine they prefer. So perhaps you keep drinking the bubbly through the meal. That’s why I offer pre-dinner drinks.
Which wines work best for dessert?
We have a rich Port from Dow’s, the traditional fortified wine from Portugal that’s wonderful with chocolate desserts.
We also have a spectacular Lenz Moser Beerenauslese from Austria that works well with creme brûlèe.
Dow’s LBV Port 2012
Douro D.O.P., Portugal
Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenauslese 2017
Burgenland Prädikatswein, Austria
What do you do with the wines that guests bring? Serve them?
I always make a big deal any guest whose brave enough to bring me a bottle of wine because most of them think it’s like bringing ice to the Arctic. I always say something like, “Oh this is a terrific wine (much as I’d say any newborn baby is just so cute) and I’d love to try it unless you think we should save it for another special occasion?” Then that lets guests tell you whether they hoped you’d open this expensive bottle of cabernet that they just schlepped all the way back from Napa, or that they really did mean for you to enjoy it at a later date.
If you’re the guest and you do bring a bottle to a dinner party, do you expect it to be opened?
Traditionally, the host gift, whether it wine, chocolates or candles, was part payment and part homage in recognition of the effort to organize the evening. How do you think Crabtree & Evelyn stays in business?
If you really want that expensive Napa cab to be opened at dinner, call your host a week in advance and ask her if it would pair well with any of the courses she’s serving. Short of decanting your wine on your friend’s doorstep, this is the most direct approach. Otherwise, leave it up to your host, even if she asks, as she may already have planned the wines for the meal.
How much should you spend?
For casual meals, a $15 bottle is fine; but for serious dinners $25+ is more appropriate. By the way, relax as you couldn’t possibly do worse than the late novelist Kingsley Amis, who once gave his host a bottle of HP sauce.
You can find the wines Natalie recommended as well as her new book Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much on her website nataliemaclean.com.