Friends, co-workers, and reader of this blog ask for my advice regarding wine, wine pairing, or recipes on a regular basis. Sometimes a friend is in a restaurant and sends me a photo of the wine list and asks for advice. Or I get texted from the wine aisle at the supermarket. Recently I received a reader’s question about a wine dinner that touches upon some issues that I think will be interesting for many readers. And so I decided to answer this question with a blog post. The reader’s message was:
“Hi Stefan. I’ve followed your blog with great interest.
I’ve recently been asked to prepare a wine dinner for 24. Plan to start with homemade charcuterie including fresh and smoked sausages, venison carpaccio, and duck confit/rillettes. Next would be a squash soup followed by a grilled romaine salad dressed with citrus and blue cheese. Main would be a personal size pork butt aka pork bomb with a bourbon sauce and duchess sweet potatoes. Followed by a cheese course then a semifreddo to finish.
I’m a home cook with a home kitchen so am limited to the number of hot dishes I can make. I’d appreciate your thoughts on the menu and the wines that might go with the dishes. My thoughts are Champagne for the charcuterie, light white or Rose for the soup and salad, big zinfandel for the pork bombs, port for the cheese and semifreddo.
Ant comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.”
Before answering the question more specifically, I’d like to make some points in general. The first five are about wine pairing, the second five are about cooking for a large group from a home kitchen.
Advice #1: Start with the wine
When I asked him about it, he confirmed that the wine and wine pairings should be the centerpiece of the evening. If that is the case, my advice would be to choose the wine first and then choose a dish that will work well with it. It is much easier to pick a dish that will work well with a certain bottle of wine, than to pick a wine that will work well with a specific dish. This is because you can more easily tweak the dish than you can tweak the wine. For example if the wine needs more freshness in the dish, you could add lemon zest or parsley or capers. If the wine has strong tannins, you can brown the meat more.
Advice #2: Keep the dishes simple
If a dish has multiple very different flavor components, it will be very difficult or impossible to find a wine that will work with all of those components. In a dish it may be nice to have contrasting flavor components, but if you have something very creamy and something very tart on the plate, the wine is bound to clash with one of them. If the dinner is about the wine, a simple dish will make the wine shine that much more. This is very well understood at Enoteca Pinchiorri, a three-star restaurant in Florence, Italy, that is all about the (amazing and pricey) wine.
Advice #3: Match the flavor intensity and flavor style
The flavor intensity of the food and wine should be similar. You don’t want the wine to overpower the food, or the food to overpower the wine. If the wine is very important, it is okay if the wine has a slightly higher flavor intensity than the food. Red wines generally have a higher flavor intensity than white wines, and wines from a warm climate generally have a higher flavor intensity than from a cool climate. For example with chick breast a light-bodied pinot noir from Burgundy could work, but a full-bodied pinot noir from California would overpower the delicate flavor of the chicken.
The flavor styles of the food and wine should be similar. If the wine is fresh and crispy, so should be the food. Think green asparagus with sauvignon blanc (although not all sauvignon blanc). Or a young cabernet sauvignon from a cooler climate with a grilled sirloin steak. If the wine is round and full, so should be the food.
For the menu design, dishes should ideally start with a low flavor intensity and fresh flavor style, and work up to a high flavor intensity and full flavor style.
Advice #4: Consider the preparation and everything that will be on the plate, not just the protein
Rules like “lamb goes well with Médoc” are not very useful, because it makes a lot of difference if it is grilled lamb chops or a lamb stew, and if there is a parsley-based sauce or a cream-based sauce. Try to determine the dominant flavor style and flavor intensity of the dish, and match it with the wine using advice #4 and #5. A lamb stew is more full and round than a grilled lamb chop. A parsley-based sauce is fresh and crispy. So a young Médoc would work for a grilled lamb chop with a parsley sauce, but not for a lamb stew the Médoc should be aged, and with a creamy sauce you would probably need a Cabernet-based wine from a warmer climate. Chicken breast has a low flavor intensity, but with spices it could be used for a dish with a high flavor intensity (although not an intense chicken flavor).
Advice #5: Test the food and wine pairings beforehand
Wines are not always like you expect them to be. Recently I had picked an oaked Lugana (grape variety: Verdiccho, called Trebbiano di Lugana locally) to go with a creamy seafood dish with a hint of vanilla. I had tasted the 2012 vintage of this wine before and thought it would work well. But this was the 2015 vintage, which was much more acidic than I remembered the 2012 to be. It wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t work very well either. If you want your dinner to be an “outstanding event”, it really pays off to actually try the dishes with the wines beforehand. You can then decide to tweak the dish, or to select a different wine if needed. Or even better: try 2 or 3 or more different bottles with each course, and pick the one that works best. Make sure to use the exact same wine from the same vintage for the actual dinner.
Advice #6: Get help for the plating and serving
If you are serving a large group, it will simply take too long if you have to do everything by yourself. I cook for groups of 16 on a regular basis, and it helps to have 1 or 2 to help plating and 1 or 2 to help serving. Make sure that the people helping you are quick workers and good at eyeballing quantities (so they don’t run out of an item before all the plates have been completed).
Advice #7: Preheat the plates
Even with help, plating for a large group will take too long if you use cold plates for a hot dish. Put the stack of dishes in the oven at 100C/210F for at least half an hour and use oven mits to remove them. This temperature is safe for most types of plates and for most types of surfaces that you will put the plates on, and it won’t mess with the food you put on the plates. (If you put food on a plate that is hotter than 100C/210F it will sizzle and cook.)
Advice #8: Practice all of the dishes
It is not a good idea to prepare something for the first time if you are doing it for a large group.
Advice #9: Make sure you have enough space to lay out all plates
Having enough space for all of the plates in a single layer ensures that you will be able to serve everyone at the same time. It also makes it easier to divide the food.
Advice #10: Pick dishes that do not require complicated last-minute prep
Oven or sous vide dishes are the best. Dishes like scaloppine are only a good idea if you pan fry them before hand and use sous vide for serving them, as you can only cook 4 or so at a time.
More about organizing a wine dinner here.
And now, my response to the reader’s question
As the food was already specified, I’m going against advice #1 and starting from there.
“Plan to start with homemade charcuterie including fresh and smoked sausages, venison carpaccio, and duck confit/rillettes. Champagne for the charcuterie.”
Champagne is usually a safe choice, as it works with almost anything. Especially if the champagne is not too dry. “Brut” champagne can have 0 grams of residual sugar or up to 12 grams of residual sugar per litre, and that makes a huge difference. If you plan on serving pickles with the charcuterie, they may clash with a very dry champagne (brut nature, pas dosé).
The champagne will work as a palate cleanser; the bubbles will cleanse the palate of the grease of the confit/rillettes and sausage. A red wine could also work very well with the charcuterie, although the sausage and confit/rillettes would require a different wine (rounder and with a higher flavor intensity) than the venison carpaccio. White and rosé could also work. I think champagne is probably the only choice that will work with both the carpaccio and the other stuff.
“Next would be a squash soup followed by a grilled romaine salad dressed with citrus and blue cheese. Light white or Rose for the soup and salad.”
Soup is already liquid by itself, so in many cases no wine is served along with it. Squash soup does not have a lot of flavor by itself, but it can be heavily spiced. Whether the light white or rosé will work, will depend on what spices are used.
Vinaigrettes are notorious wine killers. The citrus/vinegar and/or sugar/honey will mess with most wines. Blue cheese is usually paired with sweet wines.
If the squash soup is spicy but not too spicy hot, a Riesling Auslese Trocken from Germany with a touch of residual sugar could be a good choice. The residual sugar and round fullness (because of Auslese) will work well with the blue cheese and the spices. If there is a lot of cayenne pepper in the soup though, the acidity of the Riesling may accentuate the pepper too much.
Soup and salad seem to be a fixed part of American menus, but they are not good friends with wine. I can see why they are handy choices when cooking for 24 from a home kitchen. But if you want the food and wine pairing to be spectacular, I would recommend picking something else. It could stil be a salad, but it would have to be carefully picked to work well with a wine. For instance an asparagus salad with goat cheese and a dressing that is designed to work with the wine, which would be a Sauvignon Blanc (as that pairs outstandingly with asparagus and goat cheese). The above goat cheese and asparagus ravioli would be even more spectacular, but difficult to manage for 24 servings.
“Main would be a personal size pork butt aka pork bomb with a bourbon sauce and duchess sweet potatoes. Big zinfandel for the pork bombs.”
If the pork bombs are also flavor bombs (for example because they are wrapped in bacon and/or if the bourbon sauce is spicy), big Zinfandel could be a good choice because it has a high flavor intensity and a round and full flavor profile, just like the pork bombs as I imagine them.
“Port for the cheese”
The combination of port and cheese is a classic one, and port does work well with stronger flavored cheeses such as aged Gouda or Cheddar and many blue cheeses like Roquefort or Gorgonzola Piccante. Port can handle most cheeses, but overpowers many of them. Each type of cheese has a type of wine that will work well with it. Like Sauvignon Blanc (especially Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé) with goat cheese, or oaked Chardonnay with Chaource. I wrote a blog about pairing wine and cheese.
“Port for the semifreddo”
Semifreddo has a nutty flavor that is not extremely sweet and quite elegant. A port would overpower it. If you were to use a port, it would have to be a Tawny type of port to work with the nutty flavor. A much better choice would be an Italian dessert wine with a nutty flavor that is not overly sweet, such as Vin Santo.
Regarding the order of the menu: to build up the flavor intensity, you could consider to have the soup and salad before the charcuterie. Otherwise the order seems fine to me, if you consider the semifreddo to be somewhat of a palate cleanser after the cheese.
If you have any wine pairing questions, feel free to leave a comment.