Here’s how to organize an easy French wine-tasting party, including:
• What wines to serve at a French wine-tasting party.
• Five inexpensive French wines to serve at a French wine-tasting party.
• My menu for a French wine-tasting party.
• Easy recipes for a French wine-tasting party.
Let me tell you about a wee problem when you’re a cookbook author, restaurant reviewer, food writer, etc.: Friends and relatives think that you can, off the top of your head, come up with perfect recipes, menus, wine pairings, restaurant recommendations, etc. for just about any occasion.
It’s not that easy. Sure, I know what I like, and I’m very happy to give recommendations based on where I’ve dined and what I’ve eaten, done, cooked, served, etc. But when someone asks for something very specific (e.g., “a great vegetarian restaurant for a birthday party for a five-year-old who loves princesses!”), I’m often at a loss. If I haven’t done it myself, I don’t know what to recommend. My brain is not Google.
And so, when someone dear to me asked me to help her put together a French wine-tasting party, complete with French wine recommendations and a menu, at first I thought, “no problem”—I mean, I love French wines and French food, right? But then, I listened to the perimeters.
She wanted bottles that averaged about $25 each, because she’s entertaining a houseful. She said that some bottles could go higher, but others would have to go lower. And, she invited my husband and me up to be her guest for the weekend (she lives in the Twin Cities). The party is Saturday night, and frankly, neither she nor I want to spend all day cooking. (Hard to believe, I know. Aren’t I a cookbook author? Yes. But does your doctor want to spend Saturdays doctoring? Sometimes I, too, want some time off!)
Oh. And one more thing. I know exactly the type of wines that she and her husband enjoy: weighty California reds. They’re huge fan of high-end Zinfandels. I run in the opposite direction; that is, I love the brighter, lighter, food-friendly reds of France. Not that my hostess and her husband wouldn’t be open-minded, but I figured I’d want to meet them half way, at least. Which is to say, these are not esoteric French wines, but rather, more approachable picks that most wine-lovers can appreciate.
Given those perimeters (moderately priced, approachable French wine + easy-peasy French food), here’s what I’ve come up with.
Five Moderately Priced Wines for a French Wine Party
1. Sparkling Wine
You simply have to have a bubbly at a French wine-tasting party. Look for a reasonably priced Champagne—that is, a true Champagne from the Champagne region of France. This is where the splurge might be in order—spend a little more here, and spend less in an other category, below. Here are a few good, reliable, somewhat widely available picks:
• Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Champagne Réserve ($36)
• Henri Abelé Bruth Champagne ($35)
• Pol Roger Brut Réserve ($35)
2. White Wine from the Crozes-Hermitage Region
True. The Rhône is best known for its fabulous reds, anchored by Syrah in the Northern Rhône and Grenache in the Southern Rhône. But the powerful, generous, full-bodied Northern Rhône wines that I know my hostess’s crowd would love come at a powerful, full-bodied price. And the Southern Rhône reds—while splendid for casual, everyday drinking—are not, to me, as fascinating (for the price) as a fabulous white wine from Crozes-Hermitage.
Made from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, these wines are generally medium-bodied, with a good combination of stone-fruit roundness and citrus-fruit briskness, and subtle floral notes–without being perfumy. Look for:
- E. Guigal ($25)
- M. Chapoutier ($24)
- Delas ($24)
3. Red Wine from Bordeaux
The best French red Bordeaux in the $20 to $30 range generally bring exactly what I’m looking for in a food wine. Yes, there’s fruit (cassis often comes to mind), but what I love most is that while they’re richly flavored and they’re none to heavy, with a brightness on the finish that I always look for when pouring wine with dinner.
One of my favorite moderately priced Bordeaux reds is Chateau Blaignan Cru Bourgeois Medoc ($22.95).
However, because this might not be available in your area, ask your wine shop to recommend a 2014 vintage, if possible, from a “Right Bank” producer—that is, a Bordeaux in which the blend is anchored by Cabernet. Wines from the Médoc handily fall into this category.
4. Red Wine from one of the “cru” (villages) of Beaujolais.
Please do not confuse Beaujolais village (cru) wines with Beaujolais! The ones I want you to look for are not-Nouveau. Rather, they are labeled by the names of the villages where the grapes are grown: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Moulin–à-Vent, Régnié, or Saint-Amour.
Why I love them: With their vivacious cherry-berry notes, they have a bit of that bright Chianti thing going on. The best are shimmery, spicy, earthy, and just fruity enough; that is, though some fruit-forward-loving wine-drinkers might think them best with food, those of you who, like me, enjoy a little refreshment in their red they make fine stand-alone sippers, too.
- Chateau de la Perrière Brouilly ($16)
- Joseph Drouhin Brouilly ($20)
- Georges DuBoeuf (Flower Label) ($18)
If you can’t find these, look for wines from other villages. My favortes include Morgon, Julienas, and Fleury.
5. Red Wine from the Loire Valley: Chinon
Well, yes. I’m getting a wee bit esoteric for this final pick. Most Americans think “white” when they think Loire Valley, and indeed, the Sauvingon Blanc and Chenin Blanc wines from this region can be beauties. But I think the reds from the Loire Valley are a wonderful surprise for those who do not yet know then. And their price will help you average out that French Champagne splurge.
I’m suggesting a Chinon here. Made from Cabernet Franc (with up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon), these are light- to medium-bodied wines that offer food-friendly brightness, yet go down smoothly.
• Marie de Beauregard (Saget la Perrière) Chinon ($16)
• La Varenne Chinon ($18)
• Domaine Gouron Chinon ($15)
Note: Those who know a little about French wine will know why I didn’t go for a French Bourgogne (Burgundy). Those who know a lot about French wine will understand why I didn’t. Red Burgundies can be expensive, and they can be a roll of the dice, quality-wise. And, remember—my hosts like some heft in their wines. Red Burgundies are about shimmer, brightness, grace, and elegance, all curiously combined with earthiness and barnyard-y-ness. But they’re not about heft. That’s why I’m leaving those on the shelf for this tasting.
Easy Menu for a French Wine-Tasting Party
I knew that the more complicated the menu, the more of it I’d have to cook. And, in fact, my goal is to cook very little or nothing. You see, I’ll be in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I kind of want to get out and see some things, not spend all day cooking, right?
Because my hosts wanted to serve enough food to count as dinner, but did not want to do a formal-ish sit-down dinner, I decided to do a “fork supper”—a meal served buffet-style that can be managed on one plate and eaten with a fork, whether guests decide to sit at a table, on a couch, or simply stand around the kitchen island.
So, here’s the list I gave my hostess:
- A Good Pâté or Two: Seriously. If you live in any decent sized-city at all, you likely have a fine market where you can buy an excellent version of pâté. Since my host will be serving 12 people, I say, put out at least two: A chunky Pâté
deCampagne or Duck Terrine and a more fine-ground Mousse de Canard. Be sure to put out plenty of cornichons (those little sour French pickles and some Dijon mustard.
- A Cheese Platter: Put out an array of your favorite French cheeses. What? You don’t have favorites? Read about some of mine, here.
- A Charcuterie Platter. Add a few of my oeufs-mayo (French hard boiled eggs with glammed-up mayonnaise sauce) and some roasted asparagus my vinaigrette, if asparagus happens to be looking good at the market!
- A selection of quiches and/or flatbreads. You are free to make them from scratch or buy them from the very best delis/gourmet markets in town. If you want to make a quiche, try my recipe, posted on the blog Simple Nourished Living.
- Tartlets from the best pâtisserie in town. Again, feel free to cook these yourself, but this weekend, I’m not going to! If you really want to cook something, go for some Madeleines–little French teacakes that are super-easy to eat from a buffet. See my recipe for Madeleines, here.
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