A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
'Wine, food and words' are listed as my recreations in Who's Who, so it's hardly surprising how much I like sitting round a table enjoying them all concurrently. Unlike Nick, who is definitely one of nature's hosts, I think I am au fond one of nature's guests, but since I can't persuade our friends to invite us round every night of the year, we do entertain quite a lot.
One of the many huge contrasts between my generation of wickedly spoilt baby boomers and our poor war-torn parents is our enthusiasm for inviting and feeding guests. The previous generation, the ones with the dining rooms rather than a corner of the kitchen, tended to be worried about entertaining visitors, but we are probably less ambitious and undoubtedly more casual.
Certainly I am wary of the term dinner party. It sounds too formal and too long in the planning. And there are some friends I would deliberately ask for supper rather than dinner for fear of scaring them off, even though what they are likely to be served would be exactly the same.
I am lucky enough to be married to an excellent cook and so long ago got used to being responsible only for the liquid rather than the solid bit of the meal – lucky me. Yet another way our lives are easier than those of our parents – admittedly a minor one – is that we don't have to fiddle about with ice, various mixers and lemon making different drinks for each person. That is now, quite rightly, recognised as a profession, to be practised in places such as Brooklyn and Hoxton. At home it is now – thank goodness – perfectly acceptable and even de rigueur to pour everyone an aperitif from the same bottle. (What's good enough for Buckingham Palace receptions...)
But what should the bottle contain? Before I go on to offer my very personal suggestions, let me make it quite clear that I am completely non-prescriptive. I think everyone should serve what they are most comfortable with, but let me simply share what seems common practice in my little world of wine enthusiasts.
Champagne of course is still regarded as the standard aperitif for those who can afford it, but today it is blissfully easy to find sparkling wines from elsewhere that are as good as all but the best champagne, if you're in the know. Anyone with money can choose a prestige cuvée of champagne – a Dom Pérignon or a Cristal – but it takes a bit more knowledge, and confidence, to serve a better-value alternative such as a long-aged non-vintage champagne from an impeccable family-owned house such as Louis Roederer, Pol Roger or Bollinger or an offering from one of the less famous names such as Agrapart, Egly-Ouriet, Jacquesson or A R Lenoble. See some more specific suggestions below.
The carbon dioxide in wines that sparkle may drive the alcohol into the bloodstream fast, and many of us have a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of the pop of a cork. But guests do not have to be welcomed with fizz. A fine Riesling – trocken or Kabinett – is lovely, especially in summer. And a well-chilled pale, dry Fino or Manzanilla from Andalucia is the insider's aperitif, and the leftovers will last very much longer than a table wine. Serve in a regular wine glass – with salted almonds or slivers of iberico ham, perhaps.
I know many people simply lay in multiple bottles of a white and a red but we wine lovers can't resist the opportunity to compare. We love to serve, say, a bottle each of two different but related whites with the first course – which is why eight seems a particularly suitable number round a table, a 75-cl bottle supplying up to eight decent but not over-generous glassfuls. (I have always thought the 17.5-cl pour, the equivalent of almost a quarter-bottle that seems to have become the norm in so many British bars and restaurants, far too big.) They could be two similar wines made by two different producers, or wines made from the same grape grown in two very different parts of the world, or perhaps the same wine from two different vintages. After all, two different bottles don't necessarily cost more than two identical bottles.
In very general terms it makes sense to go from light-bodied wines to fuller-bodied wines, and there are slightly more full-bodied reds than full-bodied whites, and main courses tend to be more natural partners for red wine. But there is nothing sacrosanct about serving white wines before reds – except that if you want to use the same glass for both colours (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that) and were to serve a white after a red, the white would look disconcertingly pinkish. You could always rinse the glass with the water that I view as an essential accompaniment to wine, but I suppose that's a bit too much like asking your guests to do the washing up.
The same comparative principle applies when we wine enthusiasts serve red wines – the conventional accompaniment to the main course. It can be fun and illuminating to compare two related but not identical reds. Some wine professionals serve more than two different wines at a time but I think you can have too much of a good thing, quite apart from overcrowding on the table. Two glasses of wine plus one of water is usually quite enough for non-professionals.
Because I love wine, I'm a strong believer in cheese being served before anything sweet. Not least because, although many a sweet wine goes extremely well with many a cheese, the majority of wines served with cheese are dry and it can often make sense to finish off the (invariably dry) main-course wine with any cheese served. However, there are at least as many opinions about which wine goes best with cheese as there are cheeses. What is now undisputed is that wine served with cheese does not have to be red – although new wine glasses may be needed for white wine, however dry or sweet.
A small glass of something fine and sweet at the end of a meal strikes me as a great treat, but strikes too many other people as superfluous. When else are these miraculously made marvels ever going to be drunk?
ENTERTAINING WINE – CURRENT FAVOURITES
An extremely partial list of alternatives to the classic formula of white burgundy followed by red bordeaux.
2002 vintage champagne
Raventós i Blanc from Penedès, northern Spain
Ca' del Bosco, Annamaria Clementi from Franciacorta, northern Italy
Top bottlings from the English likes of Hambledon, Nyetimber, Wiston
Sparkling Vouvray or Montlouis from a top address
Riesling Kabinett from the Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz
Fino or Manzanilla from Equipo Navazos, Lustau or Valdespino
Rafael Palacios, Valdeorras
Acroterra or Hatzidakis, Santorini
Dry (trocken) Riesling or from the Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz
Kumeu River Chardonnay
Domaine du Pélican Jura whites
Le Soula and other Roussillon dry whites
Alheit Cartology, or Donovan Rall white, South Africa
Màquina y Tabla, Galicia
Dani Landi Garnacha, Gredos
S C Pannell, McLaren Vale
Ramey or Ridge, California
Cru beaujolais with some age
Lingua Franca Pinot Noir, Oregon
Margaret River Cabernet, Western Australia
Any Sauternes or Barsac
Moscato d'Asti (though this is too light for very sweet desserts)
Vouvray or Montlouis Moelleux
Mullineux straw wine
For more detail, see specific recommendations on our Purple Pages.