Family Dinners & Roaring Fires

By / Magazine / February 9th, 2008 / 2

When we have big family dinners, we never seem to pick wines that please the whole clan. Can you recommend some choices with universal appeal?

A wise man once said, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” And I know from experience that nothing fans the flames of smouldering opinions like a big family food-fest. Whether it’s your sister’s know-it-all husband (the expert on everything) or the mother-in-law who never met a pause in conversation she couldn’t fill, you should realize right now that nitpicking will always be more important to some people than finding satisfaction with what’s put in front of them to drink.

Knowing that you’ve lost the battle with some of your guests before things even get started means that you can focus on winning the war with the rest by picking wines that will bring harmony when liquid meets food. Since you haven’t told me what’s been cooking at these not-so-civil reunions, let me offer you a few basic, all-purpose suggestions that will bridge the gap between you and your ungrateful guests.

For turkey, ham, most fish and even some lighter red meats, try springing a wine made from Riesling on them. Making a sturdy comeback over the last few years, Riesling has been able to shake off its reputation as the cornerstone of sweet, syrupy wines now that more aficionados have come to respect its versatility at the table.

Forget about the bone-dry versions the New World would love you to think is the grape’s best side and search for an off-dry German with a Kabinett designation … and watch how its relaxed charm and soft, juicy flavour soothes the most savage of palates.

With its reputation for being a lightweight, I’m sure a few eyes will roll when I say that when it comes to a user-friendly red to match beef, pasta and anything grilled, I reach for a wine made from Merlot. It didn’t become the generic Hollywood term for wine for nothing. Typically plump, bright and balanced (especially those mid-priced versions from Australia, California and South America), Merlot is a sure-fire people-pleaser.

When all else fails, go sparkling. Not only will a dry glass of bubbly (say, a good Spanish Cava) match anything, it adds a touch of class to a meal that even your snooty kin will find hard to fault.

Having an after-dinner drink in front of a roaring fire sounds like a cool idea. Any tips on getting my palate wet with Port?

A reputation can be a terrible thing to shake, especially if you’re a wine famous for being the tipple of rich old farts with a penchant for cigars and leather chairs. Attracting a younger audience continues to be Port’s big challenge, so it’s nice to hear that somebody out there is curious about the king of all fortified wines — even though it takes a bit of a sweet tooth and more than a few bucks to enjoy.

Lucky for you, the most expensive style (the vintage variety) is nowhere near the place to start. These beauties are meant for long-term aging so, unless you’re interested in shelling out the green for aged vintage juice, your first glass should be filled with a late-bottled vintage (LBV) Port instead.

Like their vintage cousins, LBVs are made from the grapes grown in a single year. The difference comes in the aging. Late-bottled vintage wines are kept in cask much longer (somewhere between four to six years) to ensure they are mellow and easy-drinking on release and, at less than $25, they tend to be a quarter of the price of a true vintage Port.

Another beginner’s alternative is an aged tawny: a blend of wines that shows the average age of the liquid (10, 20, 30 or 40 years) on the label. Though the tawnies start at a price close to double that of an LBV, each age increment offers a progressively well-developed flavour and, as their name suggests, a deeper tawny colour.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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