A Guide to Entertaining With Wine
So many questions! I mean, I’ve had my own restaurant(s) for the best part of a decade and knowing the ins and outs of entertaining with wine – how much to serve, when to serve what, and how to serve it – still mystifies me. In the end, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that, as with so much else in life, you do you. But that’s not very helpful, is it? So, as a way of getting my head around the “rules” of entertaining with wine, I’ve put my thoughts to paper, and it was amazing to see that, yes, perhaps I do have a system after all.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
I think we all know the answer to that. But seriously, there should be a rule of thumb, shouldn’t there? When working out a menu, I always consider the time of day, the context (is it a light lunch, leisurely daytime-to-evening event, or dinner party?) and the occasion. Without being too prescriptive, I would work in fractions ¼ bottle (think small carafe), ½ bottle and full bottle per person.
There is no event – no matter the occasion – where a guest could accuse you of stinginess for serving them the equivalent of a bottle of wine over the course of a dinner party, for instance, but I feel like a quick end-of the-week get-together with drinks and a simple spread of snacks doesn’t call for more than a glass – or a ¼ bottle at most. Remember that the less food you serve, the tipsier your guests will get. Even a lunch doesn’t call for more than a glass, but with a daytime wedding you could push it to ½ a bottle per guest.
WHAT’S THE SNACK SITUATION?
The go-to wine snack must be olives… often with cheese (and crackers, if we’re pushing it). Think low key book signing, product launch or “there-you-go” when you order a glass of wine in a pub or bar.
These are all great ideas, but put some thought into the olives. Bold choice. They don’t hold back on the punch of umami and certainly clash with a glass of bubbles. Where you can’t go wrong is with an elegantly neutral arrangement of radishes (sliced or otherwise), celery or pistachio nuts, with some devilled eggs thrown in for a touch of luxury (although I would keep this idea strictly for a winter’s event).
Then, of course, the cheese. There are so many great options here that it’s hard to come up with a hard-and-fast set of rules, but when playing it safe, opt for a semi-hard cheese (think Cheddar, Gouda or Emmenthaler) with a crusty French loaf, savoury crackers, bread sticks or prosciutto. No need to get more intricate than that.
IF NOT DINNER, LET’S DO WINE
I love a good cocktail, but wine just feels a lot less fussy when you don’t want to mix drinks for the first hour while simultaneously trying to break the ice or mingle. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. I like a good bubbly to kick proceedings off, but it does have a tendency to go to your head quicker, so perhaps have a good white on standby for those who’d prefer something a touch more mellow.
“JUST DRINKS” BECOMES A PARTY
Drinks often take a more sociable turn, and when that happens, your arrival drinks get a little lig in die broek. If I’ve omitted reds from the menu so far, it’s because they’re perfect for that moment when your guests start looking for something more substantial to settle into the evening.
When it’s not dinner and you have little more than snacks to tie your guests over, opt for light-bodied reds, like Cabernet Francs, simple Merlots and young Pinot Noirs. A great blend would also involve the super drinkable Grenache as one of its key components.
Some wines are meant to be savoured in a perfect, fine crystal glass at a table draped in crisp white linen, and other wines are made to enjoy whenever, wherever, when the conversation steers well clear of phrases like “on the nose”, “on the palate”, “fruit forward thiols” and “buttery” in any other context than the stuff you spread on bread or bake with.
When having a braai – one of the greatest South African pastimes – we don’t do subtle. Go for typical hot-climate wines with robust flavours rather than more delicate wines where the grapes were lulled to sleep by cool Atlantic breezes. Dry Rosés are always a winner, as well as easy-going reds.
You could treat pre-dinner drinks in exactly the same way as you would a drinks-only party (see If Not Dinner, Let’s Do Wine above). But really, there are plenty of options for aperitifs. A classic choice would be a dry sherry-style wine. Muscat-style wines also work well. For any other unfortified wines, you can’t go wrong with a beautiful Cap Classique.
THE MAIN EVENT
Ok, so dinner usually involves at least three courses, each of which you’ll want to pair with the right wine for the dish you’re serving. There’s no such thing, then, as the ultimate “dinner wine”, but you do want something with a little more depth – a wine that stimulates conversation, that even challenges a little, or that is just so enjoyable! La Motte’s Pierneef Collection Syrah-Viognier, for instance, is not just an incredibly multi-layered wine, it also tells a story about the Estate’s rich heritage.
You’ve got an endless array of liqueurs, dessert wines and spirits to choose from before you bring out the minty chocolates, but it’s always surprised me how satisfying a good Syrah can be at the end of a great dinner. It keeps the conversation flowing and holds back on yet another strong dose of sugar, ending the evening on a very agreeable high note.