How do you select wine to take to a dinner party? A terribly middle class question, I know. But one that I reckon quite a few of us think about from time to time.
Unfortunately this can be a bit of a minefield, and one that you only start to negotiate in haste at the chilling counter of the ‘Express’ or ‘Metro’ nearest your host’s home. If you are thinking about it then, you’re too late. You may as well step on the first IED and be done with it. Avoid the stress and accept that it is inevitable you’ll arrive with the same bottle as half of the other guests…or two of the same if the discount only comes about by buying multiples. Your host won’t think you’re generous. They’ll simply know you’re a cheapskate.
But just imagine you are, for once, a bit more prepared. Maybe you plan your journey via your local wine shop where you know you can pick up some tasty non-generic wine. Or you might even have been clever enough to buy some wine online for exactly this type of situation.
What’s the decision process? I think the following variables need to be considered:
Lets assume this is a one bottle of wine kind of dinner party. If it’s more boozy, different decisions come into play – you might decide you’re best off going for that 2 or 3 bottle yellow ticket discount anyway.
So then you have to think is the wine going to be appreciated by the other guests? Will your hosts have provided the wine and this becomes a gift of thanks? It would be annoying if you bought an expensive bottle for the hosts that simply gets gulped down by the obnoxious bore at the end of the table who you’ve never met. But it would also be embarrassing if you buy some plonk that the host adds to their private cellar. You’re basically saying “hi mate, thanks very much for spending loads of time and quite a bit of money on me tonight, this is how much I value your generosity“.
These days I feel that somewhere between £8 and £14 is about right and covers both concerns.
2. Grape type
If you’re this prepared, maybe see if the host has a preference … though they’ll probably just say “red or white“. So after that you’re on your own anyway. Buy something you like, but bear in mind that there are a few grape types that have a Marmite effect. Syrah’s one. New World Chardonnay another. The obnoxious bore will probably sneer and jeer at you if you turn up with a Pinot Grigio too.
Difficult to go wrong with a Rioja, a Malbec or an NZ Sauvignon Blanc.
Most of us are shallow enough to judge a bottle by its label.
By label I mean two things: (i) is this a well known brand; and (ii) is it pretty? I suspect you, like me, think about both points. They’re often linked, too.
My feeling is that if the wine maker sponsors an American sit com, maybe think again. If it sponsors an English sit com or soap, don’t even go there. On that basis, you’re could be considering a relatively random brand, so don’t feel ashamed that you’re also in the market for a good looking label. If you’re choosing the bottle from an unknown selection, it’s kind of pot luck with quality anyway. At least it’ll look nice on the table, and you’ll get bonus points for that.
4. Is it any good?
This should really be the first factor. But there are so many wines out there, it’s not always possible to pick ones you know. Obviously, if you don’t have a particular wine in mind, it’s helpful to have a recommendation. Which brings me to a wine that I was deliberating whether I could take to a dinner party a few weeks ago. In the end I didn’t (the DP was cancelled), but the only reason I was deliberating was because I hadn’t tasted it before (so couldn’t judge variable #4).
It was a £12 bottle, so easily qualifies as both a dinner party donation and a thank you gift in my mind. A mix of Cabinet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot, the wine was likely to be pretty inoffensive, at worst. And the label is a good one: looks wise, it’s smart, clean, classy and aesthetically pleasing [there are some shiny medals on there too - so someone thinks it's OK]; and a little bit of internet research also told me it is from a small, independent South African vineyard which is very highly regarded by the users of Naked Wines (who, incidentally, also kindly supplied the bottle). The reference to ‘Reserve’ on the label also hints that this is a mix of the vineyard’s best grapes.
No need to thank me straight away, but I’ve now done part 4 for you. It’s fruity and full bodied. Black currents and other dark berries are prevalent … blah, blah, blah. That sort of guff means nothing. Basically it was really tasty and went very well with a rich beef and Guinness stew the other night. I can imagine similar success with other cow based dishes and also lamb. Bottom line is you can be confident this will go down well. Definitely one to remember.
Arabella Reserve 2007 ‘In Unison’. £12. Available from Naked Wines. As are a bunch of other wines that’d grace many a middle class occasion.
[If, for some reason, you want to read this again, you can find it (along with some much better informed prose) at www.jamieoliver.com/news.]