Walk-around holiday parties entailing wines usually include finger foods with simpler flavors. So aim for wines everyone will appreciate — simple, young, and unpretentious, for the reasons listed below.
Some people spend days fussing to make a slew of fancy hors d’oeuvres, hauling out fine crystal stemware and rare old bottles of red wines that have been carefully matured.
In my judgment, this is no way to stage a celebratory and festive holiday event. A 20-year-old Barolo may be fine for a quiet sit-down dinner for a small group, but it’s the wrong sort of thing for a Christmas party designed to allow folks to mingle and chat.
No one at such functions expects a Great Wine Experience. They are staged in part to catch up with friends, neighbors, family, and acquaintances.
It’s possible that many of the people who show up have no appreciation of a classic old red wine, so serving such a thing is a waste.
This sad tale was educational: About 1980 I bought a bottle of the famed 1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though it was expensive, I thought, “Wy not try this at the ‘small’ gathering to which we had been invited?” I had been told there would be “seven or eight” people there.
When we arrived, I counted 13 people, some of whom knew absolutely nothing about wine. And once they heard that what I’d brought was good, they all wanted some. Before I could do anything, the host poured everyone large servings. One older gentleman took a swig and added two ice cubes to it.
I got barely three ounces of this amazing wine. The host apologized for handling it as badly as he did. And I learned my lesson: never bring a classic to a holiday party.
Casual parties are fine for serving Camembert, truffled brie, home-made hummus, guacamole, and smoked salmon, but it gets a bit precious with bottles of great wine that few will appreciate.
In planning for walk-around parties, the host should acquire wines that work with a wide variety of foods and an eclectic group of palates. And let people pour for themselves.
Without specific suggestions, here are some general food-wine pairings that work nicely:
Sushi, sashimi, and other light Asian foods: The best match here are Gewurztraminer or riesling. A German kabinett, or a Washington riesling would be a good choice. Even a Russian River pinot gris would work.
Canapés made with tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes: I prefer a light Chianti with this sort of food. Numerous versions can be found for less than $10. A good compromise choice would be a lightweight zinfandel or even a French Beaujolais.
Creamy cheeses (brie, Saint-André, Boursin, etc.) or creamed dips, especially if spicy: An inexpensive chardonnay would be a fine choice. Get the youngest you can find.
Herbed finger foods, especially things that have assertive green flavors (as found in guacamole, herbed cheeses, and green onion dips) such as cilantro, basil and sage: Sauvignon blanc is the perfect choice.
Meat items (dry sausages, meatballs, cubes of steak, mushroomy items) and hard cheeses: I prefer softer reds such as Argentine malbecs or Rhone Valley reds. A great buy is La Vieille Ferme, a Rhone-type red blend at about $8.