Grapes for Holiday Grazers: Pairing wines and appetizers on the party circuit

Unless you’re hankering for a hangover, wine just isn’t a guzzling drink. There’s a reason people on the street swilling Mad Dog tend to look a bit raggedy — because too much of one good thing (or bad thing, in the MD case) is really just too much.

But if you drink wine with food, you could pretty much go all night maintaining a comfortable buzz. Remember this as you travel the holiday party circuit and endure smelly purple cheese balls. Any food, even mystery meat, tastes better if chased with wine. But enhancing the food with the right wine makes it fun.

ETIQUETTE NOTE: Bringing drinkable wine to a party that has a less-than-spectacular selection requires bribing the host with a free bottle. Bring two of your favorites, donate one to the house, then uncork the other for yourself to peruse the apps with wine-pairing style. If feeling charitable, share your bounty with others.

If you find yourself drawn to the cheese table, sip a spicier, bolder red like Rioja or syrah, especially with earthier cheeses like chevre (goat cheese), Manchego or smoked English cheddar. Softer, more delicate cheeses like brie, havarti, and Swiss work better with buttery chardonnay or fragrant viognier. But, to maximize enjoyment with any cheese, festive sparkling wine is the way to go. The drier the better. The sour acids in the wine are the yin and the salt in the cheese the yang.

My lowbrow side enjoys standard party dips like artichoke, spinach, and sour cream and onion, but the robust taste and mayonnaise/ sour cream base make them difficult wine pairers. When in doubt, a crisp, dry Riesling works just fine. Or try a hearty, oaky California chardonnay. With guacamole, my favorite, rosés rock, especially those oozing with fruit. For salsa and chips, you’ll need something with a little more sweetness to combat the heat, like Vouvray (chenin blanc) or Gewü;rztraminer.

Then there’s the tired-yet-popular blue cheese dip with veggies. Not only does it make your breath stink, the blue cheese is often the cheap, bottled variety. But I digress. With things blue, drink sweet since it complements the salt in the cheese: Sweet Riesling, anything labeled late harvest or chenin blanc. Port wine is really blue cheese’s ideal mate, but thick, unctuous wine is not exactly a walking-around party beverage.

Hummus seems to be cropping up everywhere these days, sometimes blended with a variety of different spices that make it hard to find hummus and wine bliss. But, if it’s plain hummus, stick with smooth, fruity reds like Rhone blends, Beaujolais (including Nouveau) or even pinot noir. Depending on the spices blended in, these should stand up pretty well to any hummus quandary.

For the fancy, high-ticket food parties showing off crab cakes or cocktail shrimp, stick with lighter white wines like pinot grigio, pinot blanc or sauvignon blanc. Sauces might mess with the pairing, but try the wine with the sauce, and then without, to see which one you like better. At the least, you’ll learn something.

But since people tend to graze at these gatherings anyway, use this as an opportunity to see how wines sometimes enhance food, and also how they ruin it. This exercise serves as entertainment when you’re stuck talking to someone who just tackled the blue cheese dip.


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