Troy Knapp is executive chef at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort, including Antlers Lodge. He’s also a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine. His column, Spectacular Brilliance, appears monthly on SavorSA.
By Troy Knapp
“What wine should we bring?” This is a common question when attending a party, especially when you know the food and company will be outstanding. Just because the cuisine is uncertain, doesn’t mean the wine selection should be. When in doubt, a “Go To” wine is your best bet!
A “Go To” wine refers to a wine with friendliness, as it gets along well with others. It typically offers flexibility to pair with a wide range of dishes, as well as the preferences of a diverse crowd. “Go To” wines will typically have particular structural traits. There are two major factors when determining a wine to be “food friendly”: alcohol content and acidity. Wines from a moderate to cooler climate will typically display lower levels of alcohol and higher acidity, which is prime for “Go To” wines.
My personal favorite “Go To” wine selections are:
Sparkling: Always a safe bet. Not only is sparkling wine versatile, it is also a great way to kick off the party. You can’t go wrong with Cava, Prosecco or Champagne. Feeling adventurous? Look for French Crémant de Bourgogne, German Sekt or South African Cap Classique.
White Wines: You’ll want to look for medium to light-bodied white wines, with racy acidity, good fruit, and even a touch of residual sugar. My personal favorites include, from Austria, Grüner Veltliner. From Spain, Albariño and Txakoli. From Oregon, Germany and North Italy, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. For something with subtle sweetness, France’s Vouvray or Germany’s, Mosel Kabinett (off-dry) Riesling.
Dry Rosé Wines: This is my favorite category! Rosé is typically, very versatile, as the slight red fruit character lends itself to a wide range of dishes. Highly underrated and reasonably priced wines from Tavel, in France, Vinho Verde from Portugal and Spanish Garnacha Rosado, bring a lot of excitement to the table. One piece of advice: these should not be confused with cheap, pink sweet wine. As they say, “Friends don’t let friends drink white Zin.”
Red Wines: Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The one thing to keep in mind here is to stay away from excessive alcohol and tannin (bio-molecule that contributes to the dry, “puckering” in your mouth you feel with certain wines). Check the label to ensure the alcohol content is not too high — you want to stay under 14 percent alcohol. The lower the alcohol, the better indication that it will be friendlier to a diversity of dishes, as well as the audience.
Oregon, Washington and the cooler areas of California will offer bright fruit with balanced acidity. Merlot can be a good option as it is typically rounder with soft tannins. Zinfandel displays loads of fruit up front and moderate tannin. However, it can be very high in alcohol so keep an eye on the label. Other exciting options consist of German Pinot Noir, Barbera from North Italy, Cru Beaujolais from one of the 10 highly regarded village /sites in France.
Dessert Wines: Selections such as Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Aqui from Piedmont, Italy, are enormous crowd-pleasers. Both offer light effervescence with balanced sweetness and acidity. Low in alcohol with delicate minerality, these selections are sure to intrigue a range of palates.
Now that you have my recommendations, here are some items to avoid when looking for a “Go To” wine.
Wines high in alcohol, tannin and a big oak treatment should be nixed. With this in mind, you may want to save the big California Cabernets and Chardonnays for an occasion that will do them justice. As wonderful as they are, they are better suited for specific dishes and certainly have their place in the pursuit of the perfect pairing, just not for the “Go To” list.
Be wary of chasing critic scores or ratings. Remember we are looking for certain specific qualities in a wine that gives it the ability to work well under most conditions. Ratings are far too general and do not speak to the structure of a wine.
Don’t forget to do a little research on the wine; where did it come from, where’s the vineyard, what was the process? What you discover may add a little something extra to the overall experience, plus, it would make for great dinner conversation. Keep in mind the theme of this column — to educate yourself on the art of wine pairing, while intriguing your appetite for adventure. Spectacular brilliance is always right around the corner, sometimes you may have to stroll from your comfort zone to achieve it.