Choosing Wine for the The Out of Town Dinner Party

16 Jun

High Cotton

On a recent business trip, I attended an evening dinner party at a lovely Charleston, SC restaurant called High Cotton. I was asked to choose wine for the group of 12, which was an even mixed group of varying ages from 30-50’s, men and women.

High Cotton has two wine menus, one Reserve (on the expensive side, starting at a hundred bucks and going into the thousands), and one ‘standard’ in front of the food menu. This restaurant utilizes local providers for a very high end approach to southern cuisine, with plenty to choose from at reasonable prices.

I listened to what people were discussing while viewing the menu. Some people decided quickly, others discussed options and reviewed the daily specials. I quickly scanned the reserve wine and standard wine lists. At this restaurant, wines are even more diverse than the food, which runs from vegetarian options to fish, fowl and beast in many different forms.

Had cost been no concern, I could have used the reserve wine list and started with either Montrachet or Meursault, and then slowly pained over the Burgundy red list as there are many very nice wines in this collection, but highly expensive wines are also highly specific. While I had a very appropriate wine budget from the host, I wanted wines that were slightly less specific for this group to make better overall pairings, so I quickly decided to stay with the regular list and finally selected two wines using the criteria below.

My goals: I wanted a white for the salads, appetizers, soups, and fish entrees. I looked for a semi-dry white with minerality that had no more than a hint of sweetness, featuring forward & crisp acidity but little oak or wood which might preclude it from pairing with shellfish, the salad with peach and the cold peach soup that was a daily special.

For the other wine, I wanted a medium-bodied red with some age (or a young red with excellent structure and balance) that could stand up to match the savory appetizers and heavier meats, but that could also be enjoyed on its own if someone just wanted to enjoy a glass of red. A Bordeaux blend seemed obvious after reviewing the California, Spanish, Australian and South American options.

My selections were both French wines. I quickly mentioned each to the server, who smiled and agreed they would work well with the varying dishes on the menu.

White: Vouvray Domaine Huet France, 2010 ($56). I like the Chenin Blanc grape for the task.

I know the Loire valley and Vouvray well, but had not tasted this vineyard since the 1990’s. Pale straw color and a lovely floral and honeysuckle nose. First taste was clean, delicious with bright fruit- apple, pear, quince, and a touch of citrus which led into the lengthy finish. Nice and dry, balanced and delicious. I was thoroughly impressed by this bottle, and after I tasted it I looked it up quickly to see it ranked a 92/100 from Wine Spectator -score! The most important showing was when I watched my dining partners taste this wine with the salads, cold fruit and warm daily special soups, fish, and other dishes- and the results were entirely positive.

Red: Pomerol, Gombaude Guillot Bordeaux, France, 2000 ($88)

This was the only French wine on their non-reserve that had some age to it, and I knew that 2000 was a great year for the right bank, though I’ve been told not to touch right bank wines until they are 15, I felt this was a safe bet as opposed to some wines I did not know that posed greater risk in comparison. I made a mental note of a back-up wine I liked, and watched closely as it was decanted at the table. The color was a bright ruby with a slight browning on the edge, more than I’d expect for a 12 year old vintage. The nose was red fruit and flora. Cassis and red plum show as the dominant fruit, secondary notes of cherry, clay, cedar and spice box together with a touch of spicy pepper and gravel at the back. Medium finish, medium body overall, and soft tannins. The Pomerol terroir of clay and its velvety quality show nicely. When I did my quick look at the ratings I was surprised to see this wine had ratings in the mid-80’s. I disagreed with this perspective, and felt that this wine offered more- perhaps it was the age, the success in the pairing, but regardless this wine was a delicious choice.

Ordered for the table were pork belly w/ pickled watermelon, buttermilk fried oysters, and a charcuterie plate (which was phenomenal, including a house terrine, a fois gras, and a rabbit terrine). Our group ordered widely across the menu, including both hot and cold seasonal soups, salads in addition to the  shared savory appetizers for the table. For main courses everything from fish to rabbit to chicken to steaks were ordered.

The table of 12 raved at both wines and the pairings with their meals. I was fully satisfied I had done my job, and we enjoyed bottles of each for the courses we poured through over several hours including shared desserts.

So other than my wine reviews, what do we take home from this dinner party?

1) Don’t be embarrassed to check your selections with the sommelier or qualified server. They know the food and have tasted it and have seen clients respond to food and wine before. They will know which dishes and wines are crowd-pleasers, and what to suggest to pair with the house favorites.

2) A good pairing improves the quality of both the wine and the food.

3) Know what you like. Heck, even if you don’t have an educated palate or strong understanding of wine, do share what you normally like so someone can help you if you are staring at a menu with things you don’t know.

à votre santé!

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