Pinot Grigio and Peanuts? Pairing Food and Wine

By / Magazine / December 28th, 2009 / 1

People go to parties for a good time — not because they are hungry or thirsty. As party patrons, we all know this. So why, then, does this knowledge seem to evaporate in the brains of so many hosts and hostesses? As soon as they start planning a do, off they go to shop. Some of them have the good sense to limit the quantity and insist on quality, but far too many get giddy and start with great long shopping lists pinned to recipes for gloppy potato salad and other horrors of Texan proportions. They stuff their fridges with hideous alcopops, too much beer, and bottles of heart-sinking wine — not to mention cans of soda and cheap liquor. It’s madness. And then, sadly, they invite us.

Of course we want to eat and drink at parties, but we want something to amuse our bouches, not glue them shut. What we really want is something elegant and interesting to accessorize the aperitif and lubricate the conversation. And some charming background music to set the scene.

So why do people get this so horribly wrong? I say, ditch the linen-look paper napkins, tacky wine charms, saccharine coolers and afterthought wallpaper music, and move to an altogether less aesthetically deficient style of entertaining. One that sets the tone for a good time rather than tries to put it on like a bad wig or a gigolo’s come-on.

The punch bowl is kitsch but passé. Flutes of Champagne are stylish but stuffy. And Pinot Grigio is popular but way too common. Would you like peanuts with that? Please. You might as well deck the halls with Martha Stewart and rejoice in a room that sings, “We match!”


Instead, bring on the French linens, dim the lights, let Miles Davis do his thing, and whip up something supremely cool in the kitchen to prime the party.

barolo or burgundy with truffled brie

Some say Italy makes the best wine. Others argue the French do — mainly the French, of course. But both camps will swoon when their favoured country’s top reds — Barolo and Burgundy — are served with truffled brie.

Barolo, made from Nebbiolo grapes, tastes of tar and roses. Red Burgundy, which is pure Pinot Noir, suggests canned strawberries and earthy beetroot. Both can be much more complex but those primary flavours marry magnificently with earthy, musky truffled brie.

What the heck, you say, is truffled brie? Find out by mixing about three tablespoons of freshly grated black truffle into twice the amount of mascarpone. Can’t find fresh truffles? Substitute truffle paste and a dribble of truffle oil. Then, cut a good-sized wheel of the cheese in two, horizontally. Spread the truffle mixture on the bottom half of the brie then replace the top half. Wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate it overnight. Then (drum roll), serve it in slivers on thin slices of baguette with Barolo and Burgundy.

For the Barolo, may I suggest Manzone Barolo Bricat 2003 from Piedmont. It’s expensive but exceptional, shining quite pale in the glass and demonstrating considerable restraint on the nose before revealing the most fascinatingly delicate palate for a Barolo. Yes, there is the slightest hint of tar and roses as well as earth and berries, but the flavours are so understated and so tightly integrated they’re difficult to decipher layer by layer. It’s an aged and totally Old School Barolo.

After splurging on Barolo, you can balance the pocketbook with the deliciously underpriced Récolte du Domaine Voarick Clos Paradis Mercurey 2005, 1er Cru from Burgundy. I like the nose of this wine, all dusty berries and jam with hints of barnyard. Then on the palate, lovely blueberry, plum and cherry flavours. Graceful and silky Pinot Noir at a remarkably low price for fine Burgundy. These flavours match truffled brie perfectly. Just add the lounge sounds of Federico Aubele.

pop and chips

Pop and chips is a classic combination. And I don’t mean the soda variety. Champagne Pommery produces an untraditionally packaged fizz that’s delicious and stylish in equal proportions. It’s called “POP” and it’s a true-blue bubbly — quite literally. It comes in blue glass, single-serve bottles ($16 a pop) with matching blue straws. You get all the traditional aromas and flavours of authentic, non-vintage Champagne — without the pomp. Think baked apple, soft lemon and butter pastry.

And a classic match to Champagne is of course, potato chips. Stash bottles of POP in ice buckets, arrange pretty bowls of gourmet sea-salted potato chips, and hit play.

campari and olives

For a bit of Italian flair, serve Campari — the fuchsia aperitif made from an undisclosed blend of 60 herbs and spirits developed in 1860 in Lombardy, Italy. It’s quite a complex bitter-sweet-spicy drink that some like with soda, some take it with a squeeze of lemon, and some prefer with a splash of grapefruit or orange juice. So set out the bottle with these fixings on the bar along with several dishes of the best olives you can find. And let Miles — or better yet, Frank — do his thing.

Of course Campari and olives taste bitter, so this little duo won’t appeal to everyone. Think of it as a nice little add-on to another cocktail and hors d’oeuvre pairing or something to curb the compulsion to expand toward something crazy like a buffet. Oh, and by the way, a bottle of Campari will only set you back about $25 and it’s served by the ounce, so it’s quite an economical choice.

californian bubbly and smoked salmon

There’s an open secret in the wine trade: California makes incredible Champagne look-alikes at a fraction of the price of the precious French stuff. Want proof? Louis Roederer, the maker of the famed and fêted Cristal Champagne, and other Champagne houses own properties there. They make sparkling wines that are almost indecipherable from their French counterparts in good years. And truth be told, the slightly softer style is more appealing to North American palates than the more austere versions preferred by the French.

To see what I mean, taste Roederer Estate Brut Sparkling Wine from Anderson Valley. With oomph-evoking aromas and flavours of cooked apple and butter pastry, layered with citrus, spice and mineral notes, it’s like a concentrated version of Roederer’s non-vintage Champagne, Brut Premier, at less than half the price. Fabulous. Just don’t tell them I told you.

And if $30 a pop still seems a little steep, Korbel Brut California Champagne, at close to $15, is an entirely passable alternative. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a more captivating aperitif for the price. Aromas of butter pastry and cooked apple laced with brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon make to-die-for flavours of homemade apple crumble and a long lingering butternut finish. It’s dry with racy acidity and impeccable balance, and just the thing to accompany a platter of smoked salmon appetizers.

On that note, nothing goes better with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based sparkling wines than smoked salmon. Curl it into little florets on toasts, slip it into 1970s-style pinwheel sandwiches, mix it with crème fraiche and lemon juice and fold into whipped cream to make a mousse, or serve it solo — sashimi style. Then, set it all to music with some sassy Bossa Nova sounds by Antonio Carlos Jobim. So un-Dallas.

kir and charcuterie

Kir is lovely stuff. And a very economical and appealing party tipple. Traditionally, kir was made by adding a few drops of blackcurrant liqueur called Crème de Cassis to cheap and cheerless Aligoté wine from Burgundy to create a happy aperitif.

But since Aligoté is not easy to find in Canada, and, when it is, it’s not nearly as cheap as it should be, it’s best to substitute Muscadet or Touraine. My choice would be Domaine du Pré Baron Sauvignon Touraine 2007, which starts with fresh leafy aromas then explodes with refreshing flavours of white grapefruit, lemongrass and gooseberry. It’s got just the structure and restraint to make a great kir while remaining a pretty good drink in its own right — for those stodgy guests who insist their wine be white and dry.

And the best food pairing for an off-dry, berry-scented kir? Charcuterie. A chopping board of sliced salami, chorizo, hunter’s ham, and your butcher’s personal favourite gives guests that whole hot, sour, sweet, salty thing that satisfies almost every desire leading up to a good time. Nothing missing but the music. Play some Stéphane Grappelli and you’re done.

Eight Things an Hors d’Oeuvre Should Never Do

1. Drip.

2. Require a knife, fork or spoon.

3. Take more than two bites to eat.

4. Need to be served hot — unless you have servers circulating with trays. Nothing once hot but now cold and coagulating is pleasant.

5. Be available in the frozen section of the supermarket or the gas station snack bar.

6. Fail to improve the party.

7. Come in a can with a list of ingredients that is long and horrifying.

8. Come in a can.


Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at and the #2 one at and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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