Large bottles, party pies and a little fizz make for the best celebrations.
Party wines From left: stemless Fishnet wine glass from Francalia. Viski 24-karat gold-plated corkscrew from Peter’s of Kensington. Extreme rosé glass from Riedel. Stemless goldrimmed glass from West Elm. Vitis Champagne glass from Riedel. Veritas coupe from Riedel. All other props stylist’s own. Stockists p168.
Here’s a party tip you never thought you’d read: first-growth Bordeaux tastes particularly delicious drunk straight from the bottle. The scene: a share house in north London. The time: a summer’s evening, 1992. Along with a bunch of other young wine newbies, I’d been working for weeks at one of the world’s largest tasting competitions, lugging boxes, opening bottles, washing glasses. We deserved a party.
And party we did. Hooley dooley. Any notion that UK wine folk are a bunch of stuffy fuddy-duddies was shattered that night. I remember one eminent wine journalist running around in a wig and a dress, singing Gilbert and Sullivan, while another danced on the roof in the moonlight, drinking Champagne from magnum. And I remember people passing round a bottle of Château Latour, swigging the classic claret with relish and waxing lyrical like the wine-loving tramps in Tampopo.
Not all wine parties since have been quite as loose as that night in London. But the most memorable ones have shared some of its essence: plenty of fizz, a hint of drama, big bottles, and opening the best wines for friends.
Fast forward to the late ’90s and an end-of-vintage festival party in the Barossa Valley. The old barrel hall we’re in is full of sweaty winemakers dancing badly, the fat sound of an oompah band, and the smell of that classic South Australian late-night, after-pub dish, the pie floater – except Maggie Beer has cooked the pies, so they’re a bit fancy: stuffed with kangaroo, on a bed of fresh mushy peas.
Someone hands me a glass of deep-purple foaming shiraz (winemakers were still labelling it “Sparkling Burgundy” at the time) and everything clicks: it’s such a quintessentially Australian wine, perfect for when you’re in an irreverent, party mood. Especially when there are baked goods involved.
If you haven’t tried this combo recently, here’s an idea for your next party: track down a couple of bottles of really good sparkling red (Joseph, Seppelt, Best’s, Ashton Hills, for instance – or Rockford if you can find/afford it), invite a few friends over and launch them at a selection of the finest party pies and sausage rolls you can rustle up.
Ideally, you want to be serving your sparkling red in magnum, too. I’m a huge fan of the big bottle at parties. For my daughter’s 21st we had a family gathering at our place: grandparents struggling to hear the speeches, parents wondering where the last two decades went, children running riot.
And we poured wine from magnums: some from my daughter’s birth year, some younger wines, all in big, beautiful 1.5-litre bottles.
It looks so theatrical, and feels so convivial to pour wine from magnum – and the wine tastes better, too. No, seriously, it does. I once sat down with Geelong winemaker Gary Farr and tried 10 vintages of pinot noir he’d made, from both bottle and magnum. And in every case the magnum version was fresher, more complex, generally superior. Something to do with physics, apparently: the larger the volume of wine in the bottle, the slower the ageing process.
Then there’s the question of the quality of wine you put on. Here I think it really pays to be as generous as you can. Think back to your fondest memories of wines drunk at parties and I guarantee you’ll recall the better bottles and the people you shared them with – not the cheap plonk your host bought on discount
at the local liquor barn. I’m not suggesting you open the Grange – but then again, why not? That’s what wine’s for, after all. Sharing and enjoying, not hoarding and admiring.
If you have a wine collection – either a proper underground cellar (lucky you) or even just a stash of wines in the cupboard – here’s a suggestion for your next dinner party. When your guests arrive, invite each of them to choose a bottle for everyone to share. It’s a wonderfully generous way to encourage people to engage with the wine they’re drinking, and it leads to lots of exchange around the table: “What did you choose?”; “Here, try this…”; “Oh, I love that wine!”
They won’t all choose your most precious bottles: people are good like that. And if they do? Well, just enjoy the moment.
A few years ago, I visited a vineyard in Western Australia with a photographer friend, and the host invited us to choose a bottle from his extensive cellar to have with dinner. Any bottle, he said. He didn’t mind. My mate picked out the first wine he saw and brought it upstairs to the dining room. It was the 1973 Moss Wood cabernet, the first vintage of this classic Australian red, and probably our host’s last bottle, but he didn’t blink as he pulled the cork on this irreplaceable treasure. It was magnificent: superb, cedary, earthy, wonderful old wine. An unforgettable moment and an unforgettable dinner party.
It looks so theatrical, and feels so convivial to pour wine from magnum – and the wine tastes better, too.
From left: 2015 Munjebel Terre Siciliane Rosso, 2001 Grand Vin de Château Latour, 2017 Caves D’Esclans Sacha Lichine “Whispering Angel” Rosé, and Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz.