The basics of hosting a dinner party

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A bottle of sparkling wine is being poured into a Champagne flute to create a warming, ginger and gin cocktail

As our thoughts turn to hosting friends and family in our homes, it may be tempting to plan the “perfect” dinner party. But with just a few key ingredients – namely good food, delicious wine and excellent company – it’s far easier to throw a dinner party that you’ll enjoy just as much as your guests. Here, we share a few tips on hosting, and how to make the most of your food and wine choices.  

SIMPLICITY IS KEY

Think about rustic, homely food where most of the work is done by the oven. Roast chicken stuffed with oregano and crusty bread, slow-cooked lamb shoulder with root vegetables, or meat-free options like a lentil shepherd’s pie. These can be prepared in advance, freeing you up to spend time with your guests.  

NOBODY WANTS TO BE MADE A FUSS OF

If there are a mix of dietary requirements among your guests, make sure your dishes work for everyone, so that one group doesn’t feel as though you’ve done lots of extra work for them.  

MAKE THINGS AS EASY AS POSSIBLE

No-one likes that awkward moment when their glass is empty, and they have to catch the attention of the host. To avoid this, place a selection of drinks on the table and allow guests to help themselves. Not being overly attentive can often be the most hospitable approach.

PREPARE YOUR WINES IN ADVANCE

If you’re serving white, sparkling or sweet wines, make sure they’re well chilled ahead of time. It’s easier to bring a wine up to room temperature than to chill it down rapidly. Reds don’t necessarily need to be in the fridge, but make sure they’re lightly chilled and not sitting by the oven.  

TO DECANT OR NOT TO DECANT?

A glass decanter can make an elegant centrepiece on your table. But, it’s about knowing which wines you need to decant and the benefits of doing so (or not). If you’re serving a young red wine with robust tannins, decanting an hour before serving will allow the wine to “breathe”.

For older red wines, decanting allows you to filter out any sediment or pieces of crumbled cork. Very old wines should only be decanted minutes before pouring. But decanting is very much a choice.

The act of transferring wine from one vessel to another speeds up the development process. But, it can be just as much fun to watch a wine evolve in the glass during the evening. And some guests might like to see the bottle on the table to be reminded of what they’re drinking.  

CONSIDER MATCHING YOUR WINES TO YOUR DISHES

Sparkling wines are a wonderful way to start any dinner: the acidity and bubbles help to wake up your palate and prepare you for the meal. But they’re also excellent alongside many dishes, as the acidity cuts through salt and fat very nicely. Well-loved combinations include smoked salmon blinis, arancini or the classic choice of fish and chips.

For the main course, you might like to consider something made from Pinot Noir. These wines work wonderfully with most foods, including vegetarian dishes, and guests who don’t like heavy reds tend to enjoy this lighter style. If you’re serving a curry, a rich white Burgundy or a Californian Chardonnay would work well. And an off-dry Riesling – or even a sweet wine such as a Sauternes – can be delicious when paired with Thai or Chinese flavours.  

THINK ABOUT TEXTURE

Remember that the weight of a wine is just as important as the flavour. Lighter dishes need wines with lower alcohol, lighter body and fewer tannins. Rich, heavy dishes can match wines with plenty of tannic grip and high alcohol.  

DON’T OVERTHINK IT

Of course, there are some sublime food and wine matches in the world. But if you have a good bottle of wine, some nice food and great company to share it with, you’re set for a fantastic dinner party.  

For more tips on which wines to select, read our guide to drinking windows here.

Category: Miscellaneous

When is a wine ready to drink?

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Barbara Drew MW takes us through when a wine is ready to drink.

Opinions on the perfect time to open that special bottle vary, even amongst those who have been working in wine for eons. Understanding how wines mature can help you to decide when to crack open that case of claret. Here Barbara Drew MW breaks down what maturity codes on bottles mean, how wines change as they age, and how to work out when to drink certain wines.

When is a wine ready to drink? The received wisdom, certainly at Berry Bros. & Rudd, is whenever you want to drink it. However, with a plethora of terminology out there, not to mention notes on wines suggesting drinking windows with often 20 years of variance, a few pointers are always helpful.

At Berry Bros. & Rudd, we recognise that our customers all have differing tastes and prefer to drink their wines at different times. However, we have a four-tier system that indicates what stage your wine is likely to be at.

LAY DOWN

This refers to wines which are generally deemed to be on the young side for drinking. They may be red Bordeaux wines which are only a few years old, and therefore are high in tannins and lacking the additional complexity that a decade in bottle may provide. This could also refer to some white wines, such as a Grand Cru white Burgundy that is so tightly coiled that it is hard to detect any aromas or flavours in it.

The terminology itself refers to how wines are generally stored – on their side, to ensure the cork remains in contact with the wine and continues to provide a perfect seal. For more information on the ideal way to store your wine, click here >> Wine Storage

It is not “wrong” to drink these wines now. However, you may miss out on some complexity by not waiting a few more years for these bottles to mature. If you choose to drink “Lay Down” wines now, pairing them with robust foods that can match their bold tannins and soften them slightly is wise.

DRINK, YOUTHFUL

Youthful wines tend to be those that are dominated by fresh fruit aromas and often, smoky or spicy notes from oak ageing. For reds, the tannins may well still be prominent in the wine. For whites, these wines are aromatic, and fruit-forward, with often a real smoky flavour underlining the palate, indicative of high quality oak use.

These wines are best savoured now by those who enjoy fruitiness, and do not mind wines which may have slightly more noticeable tannins. It is worth bearing in mind that winemaking has changed a lot in the past 20 years. As such, wines from the 2000s onwards are far more enjoyable young – as the fruit is riper, the tannins softer and the oak better integrated due to warmer global weather, better management in the vineyard and a more subtle approach in the winery. Whereas in the 1980s wines such as red Bordeaux had to be aged for 20 years before the tannins softened sufficiently to make the wine palatable, that is simply not true anymore.

Do not be shy about withdrawing wines that are Drink, Youthful – they can offer huge amounts of drinking pleasure. In particular, when serving wine to a crowd, who may have different tastes, younger wines that still retain much of their fruit are often a safer choice than more mature wines.

DRINK, PEAK

How long is a piece of string? How peak is peak? Even within the wine trade, there is no agreement on when, precisely, a wine is at its peak. However, most critics and buyers agree that the wine needs to show a balance of both primary (that is fresh fruit) and tertiary (dried fruit, leather and earth) flavours, sitting somewhere on a spectrum between barrel-fresh and vinegar.

The tannins may well have softened on red wines, polymerising to form a more silky texture. Subtle spicy and savoury notes may start to come through on the palate. Overall the flavours and aromas will feel more spread out on the palate – instead of hitting you with a ball of flavour all at once, the flavours and aromas take their time, allowing you to savour them in turn. For white wines, these may well be starting to take on a golden colour, and developing flavours of honey, nuts and wax.

For those who enjoy wines with more savoury flavours, that may be less fruity, this is the perfect time to drink such wines.

DRINK UP

These are wines that need to be withdrawn, and enjoyed, at the earliest possible opportunity. They have reached the point where they are no longer developing further complexity. Almost all of their flavours will be tertiary – dried fruit, nuts and savoury notes.

The tannins will be as supple as they will become (note that tannins never entirely disappear.) After this point in time, the flavours will start to gently, slowly, fade, and the tannins will in fact, over time, become more apparent, as the flesh of the wine falls away.

For whites, these will be heading into deep golden, or even amber territory. Past this point, the subtle flavours risk being overwhelmed by a heavy nutty or overly buttery flavour.

And for those worrying about finding a suitable occasion to drink such wines, having held onto them for so long, it is worth remembering that the wine itself can be an occasion. These are not wines for birthdays, anniversaries or New Year. They are wines to be opened up, savoured and discussed on a cold Tuesday in the dark days of winter. Wines to be enjoyed for themselves, just as they are. 

Discover more tips on drinking, serving and storing wine here.

Category: Wine School

Fireside drams: stories from the whisky world

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Illustration by Bryan Angus

As the year draws towards its end, few things are more inviting than a crackling fire and a warming dram. Hannah Crosbie sits down with our Spirits Buyer Rob Whitehead and two of his friends from the whisky world, to delve into the stories they’ve shared over a 15-year fellowship.  

Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, has the unique pleasure of hunting down the casks, blenders and distillers with a story to tell – and he’s particularly good at recounting those tales.  

Along his whisky journey, he’s forged a 15-year friendship with two spirits industry heavyweights. Oliver Chilton is Head Blender at Elixir Distillers, which produces Port Askaig whisky and Black Tot Rum, among other much-loved spirits; and Joe Clark, Whisky Director at Spirit of Yorkshire, is the man behind the brilliant Filey Bay bottlings. Their story began, unassumingly, on a southbound train from Newcastle over a bottle of Glen Grant 1974. 

It’s a cool autumn evening when I meet Rob, Oliver and Joe in The Parlour at No.3 St James’s Street; fittingly, it’s here that the Cutty Sark whisky was originally conceived in 1923. Almost a century on, we gather around the same fireplace to explore the memories – and drams – the friends have shared together over the years. As the whisky flows, I settle in and let their stories lead the way.  

On origin stories… 

Joe: I’d love to have the kind of story that goes back generations. I started out in a whisky shop in York. For many people, that’s how it all starts: meeting and working with people who are ridiculously passionate about this fantastic liquid. It’s just infectious. The more you taste, the more you want to read about it – for me, it was a snowball effect. The first whisky that really stopped me in my tracks was a Sam Smith blend. I’d never experienced anything like it in terms of flavour – I remember being on the bus home and still feeling its presence.  

Oliver: I started out in the coffee shop directly opposite the whisky shop Joe was working at. I remember thinking, “I wonder if he’ll swap me some coffee for some whisky”. Thankfully he said “yes”. I then spent so much time in that shop, I ended up getting a job there. We started going to whisky events and festivals together, meeting the broad church that is the whisky community. One time, I got on a train back down from Newcastle with two men I’d met that day – one of whom turned out to be Rob Whitehead. 

Rob: I pulled out a bottle of Glen Grant 1974 for us to drink on that train. It felt so liberating to uncork such a special bottle on that journey back down south. Right now, we’re drinking a bottle of its sister cask. Back then, whisky like that used to be so hard to find. Nowadays, the internet tells you exactly where you can find anything at the click of a button. There were far more underground secrets in the whisky industry back then. 

On spontaneous collections… 

Oliver: I don’t think any of us are intentional collectors. Whisky is different – it’s not like collecting stamps. You buy a bottle because you’re interested in it, and then suddenly many more bottles become interesting to you. And then you end up building a collection because you just don’t have time to drink them all! 

Joe: It’s tricky to collect when you’re on the production side of things, too. For instance, I would love a bottle of everything we make, but, ironically, it becomes so much harder to obtain when you’re the one making it. I think in some ways it’s easier to be a customer and seek bottles out. For me, I want to make the customer happy by making the best whisky I can, and then suddenly it’s finished, and I realise I should have negotiated a case or two. 

On special occasions… 

Rob: The memory that immediately springs to mind is when my daughter was born. When we got home, my wife and I didn’t drink anything. Two weeks later, we cooked a wonderful dinner together, after which we enjoyed a couple of drams – one from my birth year and one from hers. Mine was a Dailuaine from 1985 and hers a 1987 Bunnahabhain – two bottles drawn from my collection on the remarkable evening my daughter stopped wailing.  

Oliver: I remember the birth of my child very differently; I think a whisky was the first thing I had when I got home. 

Joe: It’s also an unbelievable feeling being able to share whisky with people who have been through that amount of time with you. We’ve all known each other for over 15 years, so our friendship should be drinkable soon. 

Rob: Whisky can be a much-fêted substance that’s often put into locked vaults, but we shouldn’t hold out for these momentous occasions. 

Oliver: And you don’t necessarily need a lavish occasion to open a lavish bottle. There was an infamous incident on Islay where I came down for breakfast to find my wife pouring a multi-thousand-pound bottle of Karuizawa over her porridge. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about being in the moment with the people who matter the most. 

Rob: Whisky has this brilliant ability to bring people together. From the people who make it to the people who drink it, there’s such a great culture of sharing: sharing experiences, sharing knowledge, sharing company. With such a generous and welcoming community, it’s also a godsend that you can open a bottle with a friend one day, and then you can share it with someone completely different the next evening. That is, unless you’ve emptied it. 

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 edition of No.3 magazine.

Category: Miscellaneous

Meet the makers: Giaconda

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Photo credit: Jason Lowe

Some winemakers join the well-established order of a family business, following in the footsteps of their forebears. For others, there is no established order: they start from scratch with just an idea and a plot of land. In this three-part series, Charlie Geoghegan meets three producers who have forged their own path. First up is Rick Kinzbrunner from Australia’s Giaconda.

Rick Kinzbrunner tends a piece of land that has been “more or less the same” for about 400 million years. He planted some vines here about 40 years ago, but otherwise “it’s never been stuffed with”, he says.  

This is in the foothills of the Victorian Alps, near the township of Beechworth – about three hours north-east of Melbourne. As Australian wine regions go, it’s not exactly a household name. It was viticulturally unheard of in 1982 when engineer-turned-winemaker Rick, new to the area, spotted a small property for sale: some land and a small house.  

“It looked like a good block of land,” he says. “I planted some Cabernet and Chardonnay and took it from there.” 

And so, almost “by accident”, Giaconda was founded. Since his inaugural 1985 vintage, Rick has carved out a niche at the very top of Australian fine wine. He got the estate off the ground thanks to “good luck and good instinct”, he says. But this was no vanity project or flight of fancy: Rick had considerable winemaking chops before he planted his first vine. 

A decade or so earlier, Rick found himself in California. He worked for four years under Warren Winiarski, pioneering founder-winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley. Warren’s “passion and attention to detail, being so particular about everything” stuck with Rick. So, too, did the influence of his peers: up-and-coming producers like David Ramey and John Kongsgaard that would also go on to do great things.  

“They were always much more interested in traditional aspects of winemaking than people seemed to be in Australia,” Rick recalls. By the time he set up Giaconda, Rick had also made wine in Sonoma, Bordeaux and New Zealand. The former engineer was now “very much in a winemaking mindset”. 

While Rick has, over the years, grown a range of different grapes, Giaconda is best known for its Chardonnay. “Chardonnay’s always been my passion, right from when I started,” Rick says. The grape was not a popular one in 1970s Australia, though Rick remembers tasting some of “the rare ones”.  

A truly transformational moment came in 1976, when Rick tasted a Chablis from the négociant house Louis Latour. “I was with a friend in Boston,” he recalls. “It wouldn’t have been a great Chablis, but it was a good one. It was something I hadn’t seen before: another side of Chardonnay, with the minerality. I can remember how extremely different it was to what I already knew.” 

Giaconda’s Estate Chardonnay has a rich and distinctive style, more easily mistaken for a Côte de Beaune white than a Chablis. But that bottle was enough to spur a lifelong fascination with the grape. Rick has long gravitated towards what he calls a more “traditional” style of Chardonnay winemaking – one that bucks the various trends that have come and gone in his time.  

“I make the wine I like to drink,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ve seen too many modern Australian Chardonnays. They’re too thin, too acid. They’re trying to imitate Chablis and not really successfully doing it. People are picking earlier, withholding malolactic fermentation, all sorts of ‘unnatural’ things. But for me, Chardonnay is all about secondary characters and minerality, not dominated by simple fruit.” 

The Beechworth area has come on some way since Rick first arrived. “For a long time, I was the only one making wine here,” he says. “It was a bit of a guess.” Today there are over 20 vineyards in the region, most of them small, family operations like Giaconda. The scale of things suits Rick, who farms just four hectares of vines – and seems perfectly content to keep it that way.  

“We’ve basically gotten smaller, not bigger,” he says. “My overall aim is to do less but do it better.”  

Rick is the first Kinzbrunner to make wine, though he won’t be the last. His son, Nathan, joined the estate in 2007. “Hopefully one day he’ll be able to take over,” Rick says. Not that Kinzbrunner senior is planning on going anywhere.  

“I might do a bit less and less all the time, but I’m not going to retire, put it that way.” 

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 edition of No.3 magazine. Explore the wines of Giaconda here

Category: Miscellaneous