The Boston Phoenix January 18-25, 2001


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Party time

The wine art of celebration

by Thor Iverson

Whether it's dinner for the boss, a meal to impress visiting parents, or just a romantic bite for two, sooner or later everyone has to host a dinner party. Under these circumstances, most people expend a lot of energy worrying about the food. But wine is often treated as an afterthought.

It doesn't have to be that way. Wine can be an essential part of any special dinner; it can even be the central part. All it takes is a little basic arithmetic and a nod in the direction of the Boy Scout motto: be prepared.

First, count up the guests. Who will be drinking wine, and how much? In the absence of information to the contrary, at a regular meal men can usually polish off at least half a bottle and women slightly less than that. But at long, multi-course dinners those quantities go up, and so a better rule of thumb is this: one bottle per guest, per three hours of dining. Adjust downward for light drinkers, if necessary, but it's surprising how easily a group of people having a good time can consume wine. A bottle of wine contains about five to six standard glasses, while sparkling wine is good for about seven to eight glasses. Finally, remember that some people tend to shy away reflexively from both sparkling wine and sweet wine, which reduces the requisite quantities. (And don't forget that someone will need to drive home.)

Now that you know how much wine you'll need, figure out when you'll need it. Usually only the salad course is unfit for wine; acidic vinaigrettes wreak havoc on just about all vinous products, though other salads are more forgiving. In a traditional French meal (hors d'oeuvres, fish course, meat course, salad, cheese, dessert), that's five opportunities to serve wine.

Knowing these two key facts -- how much and when -- will help you determine whether you want a different wine for each course or just a few good bottles for the duration. If you're planning the latter, be sure to choose relatively versatile wines, such as Chianti Classico and Alsatian pinot gris, which have both the intensity to work with heavy dishes and the brightness to work with lighter preparations; impressive but ponderous wines like zinfandel or Napa chardonnay get cranky if paired with the wrong dish.

However, with one-course/one-wine dinners, new questions arise. Is the dinner to be based on the wines, showcasing special or thematic bottles? Or is the food the focus, and the wines secondary? Is there one star wine with a bunch of supporting players, or are all wines created equal?

It's important to remember that the more legendary and well-aged a wine, the simpler the food should be. A complex Peruvian casserole is fine for simple wine, but a well-aged Bordeaux needs something uncomplicated, like roast rack of lamb with a mild Dijon crust. The usual guidelines about matching food weight with wine weight should prevail: light food (such as poached halibut) with light wine (such as pinot grigio); heavy food (such as broiled steak) with heavy wine (such as syrah).

Furthermore, keep wine weights in mind when planning the order of service. Sparkling wines (other than sparkling shiraz and other bubbly reds) should come first, then dry whites (light to heavy), then dry reds (light to heavy), then sweet wines (light to heavy, white to red, unfortified to fortified). Thus, a typical wine line-up might look like this: Champagne, Sancerre, gewürztraminer, Beaujolais, Brunello di Montalcino, sweet muscat, Port.

But what if you want to change that order? What if the meat dish really calls out for a gewürztraminer (maybe it's sausages baked in a casserole with Munster cheese), while the fish dish would be better with a red (perhaps a seared tuna steak with roasted garlic and spiced tomatoes)? Rather than fight the system, it's better to borrow the terrific Italian concept of the intermezzo: serve a little sorbet, or fruit, or anything else palate-refreshing in between the two courses. The same advice applies if you're serving a reasonably sweet wine earlier in the meal (perhaps a sweet white with a dish heavy in blue cheese).

Finally, it is important to have back-ups. Wines can disappoint for any number of reasons, including corkiness, and old wines are especially prone to failure from heat damage and simple old age. Nothing is more dismaying than opening the star bottle and finding only stewed nastiness inside. Always have a few extra bottles in the bullpen.

A few wines worthy of anyone's party:

Filliatreau 1996 Saumur-Champigny "La Grande Vignolle" ($16.99). Exotic and rustic. It tastes of Hungarian peppers and black cherries, with a slightly fungal character like that of a lichen-covered tree root in a wet forest. This character is not at all unpleasant, and the finish is more conventionally earthy, with a touch of rhubarb. Properly, this wine should age for the better part of a decade, but if you're opening it now, decant it (there's already sediment) and serve it with herbed polenta.

Navarro 1997 Gewürztraminer "Late Harvest" ($16.99). Overall, no American producer has done more than Navarro with this highly individualistic grape. Better than Navarro's dry version, this peach and lychee confection has a taste like creamed honey, unctuous without being syrupy, with a bright and long finish. Serve with spiced poached pear, with Munster, or by itself.

Mirassou "Showcase Selection" 1997 Pinot Noir "Harvest Reserve" ($30). Very clearly a New World pinot, in that it shows a distinct blackberry-cola character and is thickly oaked. But there's great, earthy fruit here, an enticing hummus aroma, and a rich baked-spice flavor that makes this wine something very tasty. Serve with gently spiced lamb.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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