How to Choose Wines for Your Next Dinner Party

You've got friends coming over for dinner and the menu is all planned - but what wines will you serve? Choosing wine can be downright daunting (there are so many options!). Thankfully, wine expert Tara Devon O'Leary has the scoop on how to choose the perfect wine for any meal.

Tara Devon O'Leary
4-minute read

How to Choose Wines for Your Next Dinner Party

Shopping for wine can be an overwhelming and daunting experience. So many bottles, labels, regions! 

But not to worry. I’m going to break it down and make it easy for you. Today we will talk about choosing wines to serve at your next dinner party. You want to make a thoughtful decision and serve wines that will not only match your menu, but that your friends will enjoy and find interesting!

Let’s go through the different stages of the evening and find the ideal bottles for your courses:

For the Nibbles: An Aperitif

Champagne is always a wonderful way to start your evening, but it's not the only sparkling wine you can serve.  You could do a Crémant from France – specifically from the Loire Valley, Burgundy (it might say Bourgogne on the label), or Alsace.  Crémant is a sparkling wine made in the "traditional method" as in, just like Champagne. But since it’s not actually made in that revered region, it can’t say Champagne on the label.  Crémant is a wonderful, alternative to the fancy fizz and much more budget-friendly as well.

Another idea that is a bit off-the-beaten path is English sparkling wine. Ridgeview is a great example and the one most widely available in the U.S.

Both Crémant and English sparkling wine would be great accompaniments to any canapés or nibbles you have around for people to snack on before dinner.

For the Appetizer: White Wine

If the starter dish is light, it can be matched with any number of tasty, interesting white wines.  Serving something that isn’t on everyone’s radar means it will be a great talking point and help make the night especially memorable.

One of my favorite wines which is both classic and a bit different is Savennières. It’s a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley in France - the wines are usually delicate and floral and have a wonderful minerality. On a recent trip to the Loire Valley, I found that Savennières is best when it’s 3-5 years old. 

They’re really delicious with oysters, but mollusks aren't easy to serve. So instead, try it with a cold asparagus soup or an asparagus and goat cheese tart. Savennières is one wine that goes really well with asparagus which is a notoriously difficult vegetable to pair with.

See also: 5 Secrets to Great Food and Wine Pairing

Another way to go, if your starter is more hearty and bursting with fresh flavors, is a dry Riesling. Riesling is often overlooked because it’s thought of as a sweet wine (which it can be), but dry Rieslings are simply gorgeous whites, with lots sensual aromas. They're tropical, with a touch of lime, which would pair perfectly with the lime you spritz over your shrimp salad.

For the Entree: Red Wine 

Depending on what you’re serving as the main dish and how heavy it is or how intense the flavors, you’ll want to choose a corresponding wine - but that doesn't mean you have to be predictable! 

For example, try something from an unexpected wine region. If you're serving a chicken dish, go for a light red Pinot Noir from countries that aren’t known for their reds, like Germany or Austria. Or check out a Pinot Noir with more body from Tasmania, a brilliant and not hugely well known region. For a more robust choice, perhaps a full-bodied, herby Saint Chinian from the Languedoc in France.

Personally, I always have a few different bottles with my main course because I find it really fun to open several bottles of different reds and serve them at the same time so we can all compare which one we prefer with the food. It can make for a spirited conversation!

When you have an idea of the sort of red you’d like to serve, an extra special touch is to find a magnum bottle of it.  A magnum is a large format that contains two regular sized bottles. It always looks impressive when you serve it to your friends at the table.

For Dessert: Sweet Wine

As with all the previous courses, the possibilities for dessert wine are many.  The epicenter of dessert wine could be said to be Sauternes in France, the home of the world’s most famous dessert wine. Chateau d’Yquem holds the record for the most expensive white wine ever sold – a bottle from 1811 went for $123,000 in 2007!

Chateau d’Yquem holds the record for the most expensive white wine ever sold – a bottle from 1811 went for $123,000 in 2007!

Fret not! There are plenty of other producers in the region making stunning wines that are actually affordable for us regular folk. These wines are lusciously honeyed with flavors of stewed peaches and a touch of nuttiness.

Or instead of Sauternes, another idea is Tokaji from Hungary. These are classy, decadent wines, brimming with honeyed apricot and flavors of orange marmalade. The level of sweetness is measured in Puttonyos which will be displayed on the label – the ones you want have 5 or 6 Puttonyos so check for this on the label while you’re shopping.

That's it!

So next time you’re shopping for wines to serve at your dinner party, look for wines for each stage of the evening from sparkling, to white, to red, to sweet and have fun experimenting and introducing your friends to wines you wouldn’t usually drink every day.

What are some of the wines you’ve served to your friends that have been a great successes? Which have failed? Let me know in the comments below or share with me on Twitter @Tara_Devon or on Facebook.



Tara Devon O’Leary is a sommelier, author of the popular blog WinePassionista.com, and co-host of the online wine show “The Punch Down.” Tara holds a Diploma certification from the world-renowned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) where she is also a Certified Educator. She is accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, and has served as judge at major annual international wine competitions. Tara's advice is delivered with a dash of flair, heaps of enthusiasm, and zero snobbery.

Connect with Tara on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

Tara Devon O'Leary

Tara is a former sommelier, author of the popular blog WinePassionista.com, and co-host of the online wine show “The Punch Down.” Tara holds a diploma certification from the world-renowned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) where she is also a Certified Educator. She is accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, and has served as judge at major annual international wine competitions.

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