Loose rules for a picnic


Someone pouring red wine into a glass, with picnic food in the background.

When it comes to picnics, there are few if any rules. Here, Charlie Geoghegan sets out why that’s a very good thing. 

I love the ad hoc nature of a good picnic. With a dinner party, you’ve got timings and a plan and consequences if things go awry. Picnics are looser; the details are fluid, flexible and up for debate. Your friend neglecting to mention that they’re bringing their dog (or their spouse or their child) is really not that big a deal when it’s a picnic. Often, it’s those very deviations – the unexpected guest, the last-minute change of location – that make for a memorable occasion. 

The best picnic I can recall wasn’t supposed to be a picnic at all. I was on a wine holiday in Tuscany with my friend Mark, the summer before Covid. We were flitting between poky city hotels, Airbnbs in the middle of nowhere and – for this one night only – the luxury guesthouse of a leading Brunello di Montalcino producer. We had intended on having a slap-up dinner in the nearby town of Montalcino, and to make the most of it, we wanted to leave the rental car behind. It turns out that last-minute taxis in the Tuscan countryside don’t come cheap, however; the 15-minute journey each way would have cost us more than our dinner budget. The only solution: an emergency picnic. 

We took the car to town, stocked up on supplies and enjoyed an al fresco feast back at the deserted winery. We sat at a picnic table eating and drinking, listening to Van Morrison and Jeff Buckley albums on Spotify, totally uninterrupted but for one inquisitive deer and the occasional howling of the winery’s resident wolves. The sun set slowly and a low moon lingered just out of reach, undulating hills of vines all around us. Better than an overpriced ristorante any day of the week. 

If you’re not reading this from a Tuscan vineyard, worry not. The principles of a successful picnic remain the same whether you’re in Montalcino or Mile End: nice food and drink, good company and the great outdoors. There are few, if any, rules, but I have found that some things work better than others. 

The food 

You’re not putting together a tasting menu here; things don’t necessarily need to fit thematically or work in sequential order. It’s probably better if they don’t, actually. People will graze. Some will have had a big lunch, others might have dinner plans. Let them come and go at their own pace – and give yourself a break. 

The best picnics are an eclectic mishmash of different bits and pieces. Don’t let the distinction between homemade and shop-bought bother you too much. Something made with a little bit of TLC at home will typically be both tastier and cheaper than something grabbed from the supermarket fridge, but needs must. 

If you eat meat, charcuterie of some sort is a good bet. Buy a full chorizo or salami if you can, though pre-packed slices will do just fine. This stuff is pretty robust, generally, making it more suitable than a platter of sushi or sliced chicken. 

Cheese works well, too. Beware soft cheeses on hot days, but a St Nectaire, Comté or cheddar won’t melt away under pressure. Bulk things out with some olives, dips and crisps. And don’t forget some vegetables: bell peppers or carrots are great raw and chopped up, for example; or grab a jar of something pickled or brined from the shop. 

People sometimes bemoan a salad, and there are few sights more uninspiring than a Tupperware full of wilted, tepid lettuce leaves and sweaty Feta, just sitting there uneaten in the sun. You might find that something colourful attracts a crowd in a way that a standard green salad may not, though. Consider a tangy pineapple chow or a little beetroot-and-cumin number. Bread I can take or leave, personally, but a baguette or two will rarely go to waste among a crowd. Whatever you do, make it a team effort and encourage everyone to bring something. 

The wine 

Your food is a mixed bag, with all sorts of different flavours and textures going on; don’t get hung up on food-and-wine pairings. What you’re looking for is versatility. The weather will also be pretty good (hopefully), so you’ll want something refreshing rather than heavy or cloying. When choosing a wine, this might point you towards bubbles or acidity – or both. 

Acidity is one of those funny words you hear sometimes in wine. To most normal people, talk of “acid” might suggest something corrosive, dangerous or otherwise unpleasant. Not so here. The acidity we talk about in wine and food is a structural component that has the effect of providing mouth-watering refreshment. It is crucial to providing balance in many wines; without the requisite acidity, a Sauternes would taste too sweet, or a Barolo too tannic. Wines with high acidity work well with most foods. The acidity will famously “cut through” the fatty character of your chorizo or cheese, and it’ll have a positive (or at least a neutral) effect on your enjoyment of most other picnic foods. 

Sparkling wine is hugely versatile, and a good one will work well with just about any food. Our Own Selection Crémant de Limoux is a consummate crowd-pleaser. From England, Hambledon Vineyard’s Première Cuvée Rosé would add a little colour to the proceedings. A magnum of Leclerc Briant’s Réserve Brut Champagne would make it a party. 

For white wine, Riesling is the poster child for high acidity. Loved by wine-trade types and still not having fully shaken an unfair image of it all being sweet and insipid, you can often find very high-quality Riesling that offers real value for money. Our Own Selection Mosel Riesling is a case in point. Unoaked white Burgundy, notably from Chablis, also works well. The Petit Chablis from Guillaume Michaut of Domaine 47°N 3°E is a good choice. Northern Italian whites, something like our Own Selection Gavi, will also fit the bill nicely. 

There are some things to consider with red wines. Warm weather and big, full-bodied red wines aren’t a natural pairing for most people. Big, beefy reds can feel a little blowsy or overly alcoholic, and are probably best avoided. A picnic is probably not the time to pull the cork on something very old, either; the setting and the variety of food are likely better suited to something with immediate and apparent fruit character rather than the more ephemeral nature and leathery, savoury notes of an old Bordeaux. Something light- to medium-bodied, with plenty of fruit concentration and balancing acidity, is the sweet spot. You needn’t look much further than a Bourgogne Rouge from a top producer like Benjamin Leroux, though take your pick of red Burgundy. For a value alternative, try Denis Jamain’s Reuilly Rouge, Les Pierres Plates (a Pinot Noir from the Loire Valley) or something from Beaujolais

You can’t go too far wrong with these, though keep temperature in mind. A cooler bag will help, if you have one. Otherwise, err on the side of caution and throw everything – reds included – into the fridge for an hour or so beforehand. 

Browse our range of wines for warmer evenings.