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Monday, Dec. 22, 2008

Party Wines

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Party Season: the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Most folks' dance cards fill up early with social engagements -- dinners with groups of friends, notorious office parties, and general gatherings for people to mingle, drink, and be merry. Custom demands you "bring something to the party," and wine's always a good choice. All you need is a corkscrew and a sound system -- you've got yourself an official shindig.

We find ourselves in the situation with which we started this venture -- ambling the aisles of your local liquor store trying to sort out appropriate choices. This dilemma is somewhat akin to Thanksgiving: You need something flexible enough to satisfy a group without looking cheap or clueless.

With some help from the Sweet Partner in Crime (who happens to be a criminologist in real life) -- we subdivided the party circuit into two major categories: informal gatherings for grazing and drinking and more "formal," and I use that term very loosely, dinner parties. While there are lots of choices (and feel free to add your own in the comments section) -- I offer up a red and a white for each type to get you started. First off -- the "gather and graze:"

These events are your basic "everyone shows up at someone's house, munch on appetizers, and carry on various degrees of conversation/deviltry" deals. There's usually at least one table where people pile liquor and wine for general consumption. If this is where you're going, look here:

Rosemount Estates 2007 Shiraz -- About as safe a decent wine as you can get. Rosemount is one of the more popular Australian bargain-line wines. I was a big fan of the Rosemount blends until they jacked up the price across the board. The Shiraz, however, remains a favorite of mine for sluggable red. Straightforward, uncomplicated -- this is a perfect red for walking around, chatting people up, and drinking a few glasses to get a warm glow. While the Rosemount's nose is plummy with a little leather scent, the best feature is the taste. Rosemount is a very fruity Shiraz with straightforward dark berry flavors. There's not a lot of tannin here, so it doesn't finish very dry -- just fruit and a little bit of pepper. Rosemount Shiraz is the very definition of "easy quaffer." If you're looking for a "real" syrah/shiraz, you're probably better off looking elsewhere. But for our purposes -- unveil, uncork, and go to town…you're not going to do much better for $6 a bottle. Heck, just drop the pretense and get the under $10 1.5 liter bottle. We're all friends here.

Snoqualmie Vineyards 2006 Chenin Blanc -- Now, as for a white... Again, we need something everyone can drink -- not too sweet, not too dry, enough complexity for corkheads and enough ease for less serious drinkers. What to do? My first instinct would be Riesling, predictably -- but I've done a lot of those recently. Chardonnay...well, many inexpensive chards are either going to be overly oaky or way too dry for mass consumption. Sauvignon Blanc? Too tart. Viognier? A lot of people think they're too perfumey and some of my friends have had really negative reactions to viognier for some reason. I settled on Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc gets a bad rap. Much like "Burgundy" and "Chablis" --"chenin blanc" evokes thoughts of cheap wine shoplifted by high school kids tired of Boone's Farm. While the Chenin Blanc grape has been used in great quantity in jug wine, in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing -- it becomes a refreshing, accessible white. The Snoqualmie is an example. This Washington-produced white has a pronounced fruit nose, but it's not as citrusy as a sauvignon. The taste starts a little sweet, but becomes a nice light balance of lemon and pear. There's a little acidic zing on the finish which turns fruity and crisp. It's an ideal "stand around and graze on munchies" wine -- as this would go really well with most hard cheeses and other such finger food. You're looking at $6-7 for a bottle.

Our other category, the loosely defined "dinner party," will have at least one evening's component where you're actually going to use a set of silverware, a napkin, and sit around a table. Since you'll generally have multiple courses, you can be a little more specific in your wine choices. Just ask your host or hostess what you're having, and plan accordingly:

Burgans 2006 Albariño -- This wine looks out of place in the Spanish section with its Celtic script and label graphic. As most of you know, wine isn't exactly Ireland's national spirit. (I may ask The Wizard of Covington to guest-write a column on the joys of Clontarf down the road, however.) What's Ireland have to do with Spain? Centuries ago, some of the first settlements in the Iberian Peninsula were Celtic -- especially in this wine's region of Spain. As a nod to their northern neighbors, Burgans styled the bottle with Celtic script. Both bottle and cork are adorned with a rune. As you may remember from the entrya couple of months ago, Albariño is one of Spain's most precious white grapes. Albariños tend to be a little more expensive, but a couple fall into Vine range. An Albariño is very different from most whites. It's not quite as perfumey as a viognier, and usually has a little sweetness, but not as much as a Riesling. These wines are usually exceptionally well-balanced. Here, the Burgans has a wonderful nose of fresh flowers and mangoes. This is a medium bodied wine, and the sweetness only shows up at the very beginning with a full taste of ripe green apple. The finish is a little tart, a little sweet, and quite nice. This would be a very flexible food wine, so you'll be in business. I had this with penne pasta with potatoes, zucchini, and tomatoes and the pairing worked nicely. I've also heard that smoked salmon would go wonderfully well if you're pairing up with an appetizer. This is a very "hot" varietal right now -- so impress your friends with this bottle --$10-12.

Windmill Vineyards 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel -- Michael-David Winery in Lodi, California has cranked out some really incredible wine over the last few years. Their signature wine, 7 Deadly Zins, is a regular gold medal winner -- and another favorite of mine. Unfortunately, it's slightly out of our price range. However, as I mentioned in an earlier entry -- one can find really good value by looking for "second label" wines by such growers. The Windmill is a perfect example. Just so you know, "Old Vine" is WineSpeak for…well…there's not really an agreed upon definition, other than that the vines are generally at least 30-40 years old. If a vine can produce consistently and with quality for that long, it's planted in the right place -- and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Windmill is a blend of old vine fruit from several of Michael-David's neighboring wineries. These choices produce a powerful zin with a big nose of blackberries and wood smoke. The taste is downright luscious -- all sorts of big cherry and vanilla flavors balance out the rich tannins. The finish is lingering, with dark chocolate and cooling mint. I went to undergrad down Durham, North Carolina way -- and it's hard to be there for any length of time without picking up a fondness for barbecue (and for you Northeastern readers, that's a noun, not a verb). This straightforward zinfandel would be a great pairing with some properly prepared North Carolina style barbecue -- or just about anything else with smoky, grilled flavors. Since you'll probably be having some heavier food this time of year, comfort food will work well. For dessert, of course, chocolate would work swimmingly. You're looking at $9-11 for this one.

Enjoy your season of socialization! And until next time…throw your hands in the air, and wave them like there are no conceivable consequences.