The Drop with Olivia Evans – a guide to winter wine pairing for dinner parties at home
I’ve just lit the last candle on the dinner table, the final mood-setting touch set amongst the array of plates, glasses, wine vessels, cutlery-topped napkins and a flower from the garden. My guests will be here at any minute and my giddy hands are fluttering on details that I’m unsure whether they are for my own pleasure or for theirs, both I hope! A winter dinner party – quite possibly my favourite social occasion, my way of saying “I love you, let’s drink wine together”, all while we share food from a dish that permeates warmth from the centre of the table, revelling in the brief window of cold nights in Brisbane. Just as I pull the cork on the first bottle, there is a knock at the door. Perfect timing …
To plan for a dinner party, I like to start with the menu while pondering at least three cookbooks simultaneously until I reach a page that I cannot turn away from. I like to prepare something to start, the main affair and a sweeter morsel to extend the indulgent festivities. My chosen recipes are based around what’s in season and consider the dietary needs of my friends that are coming. If one person is vegetarian, we are all eating vegetarian – a dinner party is a shared occasion and the offering is for everyone at the table. My longing to decide on the food means that I can immediately start preparing for how to pair the wine.
I’ve rarely had dinner at a friend’s house where we arrive and sit straight down to eat. So for the case of this soirée, I have prepared a little aperitif drink for arrival. Nothing too serious, nothing too strong – just right. A little half shot of gin on ice with a dash of freshly squeezed orange juice and a sprig of fresh thyme. Oranges are so sweet and juicy at this time of year and gin is, well, gin!
We are starting with soup to get the belly warm and because I love the excuse to get buttered bread soggy with, in this case, flavours of roasted broccoli and chicken stock soup. Vegetables in the mustard family can be tricky to pair with, as things like cabbage, kale and brussels sprouts incite flavours of green and earthiness. With that in mind, I look for a white wine that has savoury or neutral characters as opposed to fruity. Varieties like chenin blanc, melon de bourgogne (more commonly known by its appellation of muscadet) or semillon work well because they provide freshness. These varieties have great natural acidity, which induces continuous spoonfuls of rich soup and accompany the vegetal and mineral notes that can be found in both wine and produce. Simply salivating.
Moving onto the main affair, we are having a dish that I feel confident cooking and adore sharing, moussaka. I like to use half lamb mince and half beef mince to get more complex and gamey flavours. Reds are naturally a welcome addition, but I like to consider wines with medium body as they satisfy a range of palates at the dinner table and tend to be less overpowering with the food. The meat component of the dish is not fatty or textured like a steak, so I’d avoid wines with high tannin structure such as nebbiolo or cabernet sauvignon (rather I would encourage these if steak is on your dinner party menu!). My thoughts for this dish lean towards gamay, grenache or a juicy nero d’Avola. These varieties have a soft, silky mouthfeel, which they make up for with concentrated yet nuanced flavours.
Dessert never has to be complicated. A block of delicious chocolate or a simple scoop of ice-cream will do. However, tarte tatin is my go-to winter dinner dessert because it overdelivers for its effortlessness and apples have gorgeously concentrated flavour when in season. It might be time to lean away from a wine for a moment and suggest a liqueur or digestif! The Cape Byron Distillery from Byron Bay makes a roasted macadamia and wattle seed liqueur that, when served on ice, is honestly the most scrumptious, sweet and nutty little number. It goes with almost anything, especially when there is a chill in the air.
Perhaps your guests will offer to bring a bottle, in which case, let them! You can never have too much wine. Now that dessert is done, this is the perfect time to suggest another bottle, dress a board with a couple of cheeses (because despite everyone being full, you will always have room to snack on cheese) and turn the music up just a notch. That’s the beauty about dinner parties – everything can be just as you like it. Drink merrily!
My current favourite expressions of the aforementioned beverages/wine pairings
Aperitif – 20 ml gin, 60 ml fresh orange juice, thyme from the garden
Chenin blanc – 2019 Brash Higgins ‘CHN’, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Melon de bourgogne – 2019 Jo Landron ‘La Louvetrie’ muscadet, Loire Valley, France
Semillon – 2020 Vinden Headcase ‘Blue Monday’, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Gamay – 2020 Le Juice, Beaujolais, France
Nero a’Avola – 2019 Ephemera Wines, Yarra Valley, Victoria
Grenache – 2020 Frederick Stevenson Hongell Vineyard, Barossa Valley, South Australia
Digestif – Mac. by Brookie’s macadamia and wattle seed liqueur, Byron Bay, New South Wales
Image credit: Rhys Edward Jones
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