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Whether you're going all out with a fancy holiday feast, planning something a little more relaxed or throwing a chic-meets-comfort NYE bash, serving the right wine with your dishes is a crucial element to being a good host.
A good chunk of the stress a host faces involves deciding what to feed a crowd of people. With all the planning involved in rounding up crowd-pleasing recipes that are sensitive to your guests' dietary restrictions, chances are your wine offerings have become an afterthought — but they shouldn't be. The right wine will enhance the flavour of the dishes and make for a more special feast.
Since we know figuring out which wine pairs well with each dish is a daunting task, we’ve reached out to certified sommelier Olga Moltchanova for her easy-to-follow tips and advice.
Tip 1: Chicken pairs well with a light white wine, but roast turkey or roast chicken pair well with just about any wine.
“Have a lighter, zesty white like Sauvignon Blanc, or a richer oaked Chardonnay,” says Moltchanova. That said, since the white meat from a roast turkey or chicken tends to be mild or more neutral in flavour, it pairs well with almost any wine. So Moltchanova recommends looking for something that complements everything you’re eating. “A good pairing rule for this is to match the weight and flavour intensity of the food as a whole, rather than one individual flavour over another,” she says. White wines often pair better with a traditional holiday meal, while many red wines add additional elements of texture and tannins to what might be an already busy palette.
Tip 2: Pair Italian wine with pasta.
It seems obvious, but Italian wine is the way to go with pasta dishes. “I like to balance creamy pastas with lighter, simpler whites like a Vermentino or even a Pinot Grigio,” says Moltchanova. The acidity in those wines cut through some of the richness without taking away from the creamy flavours. If you’re having a Bolognese sauce, a lighter-bodied red, like Chianti, is a great choice. It’s acidic enough to match the acidity of the tomatoes, but with enough structure to stand up to meat and cheese.
Tip 3: Vegan and vegetable-focused dishes pair well with a white option.
A simple dish, like steamed vegetables, goes better with a simple wine, and something with a flavourful sauce might call for a more complex wine. “A standard veggie pairing rule is ‘green with green,’ meaning green vegetables such as asparagus, green beans or spinach pair well with lighter white wines that have ‘green’ leafy, grassy, or vegetal notes,” explains Moltchanova.
Tip 4: Hosting a wine and cheese party? Serve white wine and a light red option — or champagne.
Think of it as a holiday dinner plate – there isn’t just one wine that will go with every element of a cheese board with good variety. “White wines and lighter reds tend to complement cheese better than big reds,” says Moltchanova. Go with an off-dry white, or even a champagne or dessert wine. Champagne has a delicate palette and high acid that won’t fight with bold or subtle flavours, and dessert wine creates that sweet-and-savoury combination that you already get from a good cheese board. Moltchanova's pick? “A Vinsanto from Santorini is a dessert wine made from sun-dried Assyrtiko grapes, and it has salted caramel and dried fig flavours, with a lovely note of acidity to cut through the richness of the cheese,” she says.
Tip 5: Serve Riesling with dessert — or forgo the dessert in favour of an ice wine.
“I’m partial to a VQA Icewine because they are delicious enough to be a dessert on their own, and so many of them have lovely aromas of quince, which is one of my favourite attributes of any wine,” says Moltchanova. But, if you know your guests will balk at the lack of sweets, go with a late-harvest Riesling. Its fresh acidity and aromas of ripe peaches and honey are perfect for fruit-based desserts. Moltchanova also recommends choosing a wine that’s sweeter than the dessert itself. “Try to match the intensity of the dessert to the intensity of the wine – a rich chocolate torte, for example, would need a fortified wine like Port.”
Tip 6: Champagne pairs fabulously with French fries.
Don’t feel trapped by convention. “One of my favourite pairings is champagne and French fries,” Moltchanova confesses. Neither one has a strong flavour, and the bubbles and acidity are ideal for the deep-fried richness and saltiness of the fries. “I can’t recommend this enough, but make sure it’s champagne and not fruity Prosecco or Cava," she says. "Fruitiness and fries aren’t as good."
Tip 7: Serve champagne or cocktails for the aperitif and wine with dinner.
For a fancy occasion, you'll want a wine for every course. “I typically like to have an aperitif option, like a sparkling wine or a cocktail, likely followed by one wine for appetizers, a second wine with the main course, and maybe something to follow, like a sweet wine or a digestif,” explains Moltchanova. But for something more casual, she’ll stick with just an aperitif and one good quality wine with dinner. And she always starts a party with a glass of bubbly because it “puts everyone in a festive mood.”
Tip 8: There's no need to spend a lot for a quality wine.
Here’s a list of wines Moltchanova loves, all under $30.
- White: Paco & Lola Albariño (Spain), Pazo das Bruxas Albariño (Spain), Colomé Torrontés (Argentina), La Famiglia Vermentino (Italy), and Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc (South Africa)
- Rosé: Rosé 11 Minutes Pasqua (Italy), Remy Pannier Rose D'Anjou AOC (France)
- Red: Castillo De Monséran Garnacha (Spain), Malivoire Gamay (Canada), Stoneleigh Marlborough Pinot Noir (New Zealand), Chanson Réserve du Bastion Pinot Noir (France)
Tip 9: Don't underestimate the power of good stemware.
Know that the right glass can enhance the overall experience. Zalto is the stemware brand most wine professionals choose, but $80 a glass is a little steep, and they’re incredibly delicate. “Having recently lived through the gut-wrenching trauma of shattering one of my Zalto glasses in the sink, you may want to save them for special occasions and carpeted areas,” Moltchanova suggests. She says a great alternative is Spigelau glasses, or Riedel, and both have a wide variety of glasses for every kind of grape. And although they’re trendy right now, Moltchanova advises against stemless glasses. “Because you hold them by the bowl, the heat from your hands warms the wine and affects its flavour,” she explains.
Tip 10: When you're the guest, bring a bottle of wine for the host.
“A bottle of wine is an ideal gift since the host can decide whether to serve it or put it away with minimal effort, unlike dropping everything they’re doing to find a vase for flowers,” Moltchanova points out. It helps if you already know what your host likes to drink, but if you’re not sure, start with something you like in case the host decides to serve it to you. If you’re still stuck, some crowd-pleasers are Pike Road from Oregon, a Sancerre from the Loire Valley, such as Jean-Max Roger Cuvée Les Caillottes, or Famille Perrin Les Sinards Châteauneuf-du-Pape.