You’re on your way to a cute soiree. Dress code: smart. Transportation: car service – you’re wearing heels, after all. You are confident that the host has prepared enough canapés with your dietary restrictions in mind – she called to ask. But. There is one mystery that remains – and with very few clues as to the best way forward. How do you decide what style of wine to bring along?
People that make their wine tastes known are a not prevalent group – and they tend to lean one of two directions. They zealously favor one, often pricey, region or they stand by a tenet like ABC (anything BUT Chardonnay). So, how should you navigate your local wine shop to bring something reliable for both the host and everyone else?
Here are some tips to consider before heading to the wine shop. Use them as a guide. Just remember, no one wine will be a sure bet every time – but that individuality (of wines and humans) is why it enthralls us the way it does!
I could stop writing now. Sparkling wines are one of the most food friendly and universally appreciated wines. They offer a type of elegant simplicity that is nearly always welcome. If Champagne is out of your budget, you will be safe selecting any bottle that has been produced in a similar way (now called méthode traditionnelle, it is a fairly reliable indicator of quality.) Cava, Cremant and Franciacorta tend to be great alternatives. For a surprising, but heavyweight contender in the non-Champagne category, check out L’Ormarins Brut 2013 from South Africa.
Some folks eschew red or whites on principle (these poor unadventurous souls deserve the same pity and scorn as the ABC’s). Rosé is a safe(r) option if you think your host may be one of these cases. Rosé has had a great PR boon in the last 5 years or so. Serious pink wine has been a major player for long enough that we’re past having to educationally distinguish between Rosé and White Zin. However, the most impactful implication of this shift is that rosé is so plentiful that it’s now available all year round. This also brings us a greater range of quality and style
Rosé perches in an ambiguously lovely spot between reds and whites, which makes it quite a match for most cuisines, and more importantly for a party wine, for variety. If you decide to take this route, you should consider how sweet/fruity you’d like the wine to be and communicate that to the sales person. As a very general rule, Provence and California bottles tend to be on the juicier side (think watermelon and bubble gum, very evocative of days by the pool) and Loire Valley and Italian styles can present more like white wines, and tend to be better matches for food. Belambree Rosé is a perfect Provençal specimen with Castello Meleto Borgaio Rose (Tuscany) as a serious(ly) fun comparison. If you are not feeling fully assured here, see step one and go for rosé bubbles, the true MVP of hostess gifts.
Don’t Overdo It
Unless your hostess is one of those who exclusively drinks classed growths, bringing a very expensive bottle may not be the best option. Depending on your host’s wine knowledge – and more importantly, their drinking habits and frequencies, you risk bringing them a bottle that is too precious. They may save it for a “special occasion” that never arrives. Then you’ve effectively given them a dust collector full of vinegar. If you happen to choose a bottle like this – either highly rated, or one you personally know is phenomenal – you might hope they open the bottle that very evening. If it stays corked, especially if they do not have a cellar or wine fridge, leave them with an idea of when they should enjoy it (i.e. Sunday dinner with a Roast, the next time it rains, etc). Encourage them not it save it for a celebration.
Whether you have recently traveled to a wine region, or had dinner (lunch, breakfast – no one’s judging) where you popped open a surprisingly delicious bottle, it can be fun to share these experience with others. You will have more confidence about your selection and you’ll have a story to tell as you pass on the gift. Personal connections to the wine or winery tend to enrich the pleasure of drinking in any environment.
This can be so much more important than it seems on the surface. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone years not really embracing a certain style of wine – that is until I try it in the right context. Rosé in the warmer months is an obvious example of this, but there are many wines that shine in a specific environment. Imagine a light red (think Gamay, or a bottle from Northern Italy), right as the first chill hits, or a deep and expressive Zinfandel when your feet have been wet all day because of a snowstorm. Usually the weather where the wine was produced can indicate its ideal situation, but this is absolutely the category with the most amount of room to play. The incentive to be adventurous here is that you might inspire someone else to finally “get” a style of wine.
Some wines are inherently playful (think new, fresh styles with irreverent labels) and some are more serious (again, I think you can picture these labels). If nothing else, you likely have a feel for your host in one of these directions. If they are in the playful camp, you can go far to find a wine that carries with it a bit of an inside joke, or a cool story.
Most people won’t risk bringing a dessert wine because they tend to be polarizing. Enter Port. Yes it’s sweet, but it’s also high in alcohol (which I hear people like). It’s a natural sipper, which can encourage great end-of-the-evening conversations. And it will last so much longer that a bottle of regular wine (up to 2 months).
If none of these pointers has filled you with confidence, you can ask the sales person to suggest the wine that they are most excited about at the moment. Try to avoid asking them what is “delicious” or what is “the best wine,” as those will likely get you equally generic responses. You can to use this general rule at restaurants as well. Its often fairly obvious if they aren’t actually excited about the item they are presenting. When they respond enthusiastically in any direction, you will likely get a host of descriptors and have a high chance of also connecting to and enjoying the bottle yourself. Errr…I mean your host.
An Alaskan-New Yorker, Raven Adrian is an adult with a propensity to play. She is driven by all things that inspire laughter and curiosity which brings her very naturally to a career in wine and hospitality. She is a Certified Sommelier (CMS) and has spent 18 years knee-deep in the restaurant industry of NYC. Raven is a currently part of the sales team at Golden Ram Imports. You can follow her on instagram @grapenutter.