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Best wine first or last?

Hi all,

For any of you who have been reading the thread I started about wine with pineapple, you know the background to this story. I was hosting a dinner party that I wanted to be perfect. One of my neighbors is a Math professor who spends as much time as possible in Paris and cooks these fabulous French five-course meals with a perfect stunning wine matched to each course. He was going to be one of my guests. Needless to say I wouldn't dare to cook French food for him, so I went with one of my own strengths, Italian. So I asked you winehounds what wine to pair with my first course, a home-cured bresaola. I didn't even bother to try to pair the other courses, because I knew my guests would bring wines that they would want to drink, and a good pairing with five courses would add up to more than my wine budget for the month (ok, I don't have a wine budget, but you get the point).

So I served a 2004 Domaine Tempier Bandol with the bresaola. When my Math prof friend saw that he said he wanted to go back home (he lives in the same complex as I do) and get some other wines from his cellar because the ones he brought were not at the level of the Bandol, I pooh-poohed that idea, saying one should always serve the best wine first, before anyone was drunk, and we could move on to lesser wines. I thought that was the principle everyone believed in. He replied that this is a Swedish (!) attitude, but that the French attitude is to serve progressively better wines. I was struck by the fact that Sweden is not known for wine production and wondered if my so-called principle was very much ill informed.

What do you guys think? Best wine first or last? And does this principle indeed vary by country? I know it's a generalization, but one can generalize about food and wine habits by country with some fair degree or accuracy, right?

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  1. Hey Alix...

    Well this presumes that people are consuming such quantities of wines that they are "getting drunk".

    If you have a 5-course meal over a 2 hour period, and you pour 3 or 4 ounce glasses, let's say, that's 20 oz of wine over 2 hours, about equivalent to 3 beers over a 2 hour period, hardly enough to get people smashed beyond their ability to appreciate the next wine.

    Of course it's up to each "consumer" how much they want to drink, and usually those with higher tolerances will have more, but because their tolerance and appreciation limits are higher, they can still pick up all the flavor notes of the wines as they progress through the meal.

    Personally I don't think there's a great deal of importance what order serve wines WITH A MEAL. The key is to match the food as it progresses. You're "bringing the wine to the food". Oftentimes this means "lighter" and/or "whiter" wines with appetizers and early courses and richer/redder wines as you get into the heavier main courses, topped off with a very viscous, concentrated dessert wine or two.

    But there are great meals that start off with a rich sauternes and end up with a light bubbly with dessert. As long as you're matching the wine to the food, that's the main point to follow.

    And as long as people aren't smashed out of their senses, they will appreciate the quality, so there's nothing important about serving the best quality stuff early in the meal.

    NOW, if you're just having wine by itself, and maybe some light snacks, then I definitely would favor starting with the lighter, bubblier wines and working up to the richer/drier/redder wines and then finishing with any concentrated dessert wines/ports, etc. that you might be serving. But that's when you're doing basically wine flights by themselves.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Chicago Mike

      All very well said, and I would just add that, if I'm having a v. impromptu dinner and don't have more than one bottle of a specific wine, I do server the better bottle first, on the principle that people will enjoy it more having had less to drink at the time it is served.

      1. re: MMRuth

        MMRuth,

        Provided that whichever wine it is, goes best with that course. I've gone against the lighter->heavier, because of a course, with no problem. Since most of my dinners are rather structured, multi-course affairs, I usually do not serve a "better" wine early (Sauternes excepted), and progress upwards to hit "highlights" with the main. Now, this often means that I will do my salad course early, as opposed to the Euro-scheme of later, because I like to pair a wine with it, and do not want to trot out a pear-nuanced Chard, after I've served a couple of big Cabs, or Zins. To me, it's about the food.

        Now, I have started meals with a 1er Cru Chablis, that cost 3x the next few wines, but it's not about the $, but the body, richness, etc.

        I may be the lone voice in the wilderness on this one though.

        Hunt

        1. re: Bill Hunt

          I was really talking about at a more casual dinner when I invite someone over on the spur of the moment, have limited wine options on hand (don't have a wine cellar) and so if I'm serving meat and have two bottles of cabernet - one better than the other, I'll serve the better one first.

          Agree with what you say though.

    2. Interesting question. The issue with opening the "best" wine first seems most likely to be an issue if it is the first of the same varietal. I have experienced this when starting with one of my personal favorites and then opening something else later and falls short. I'm not talking about starting with a $500 1st growth followed by 2 Buck Chuck, but maybe a really well made Zinfandel or Pinot Noir followed by a bottle of the same that is inferior to the point that most people will notice the difference. I generally will work up the varietal ladder or switch varietals based on food / mood.

      1. Best wine? You mean you serve some inferior wines? That's the inference.

        The way wines are ordered at a tasting is normally youngest to oldest for wines of a particular type, and, more importantly, lightest (smallest) to biggest/richest. So you start with a light white or sparkler and end with the port.

        Meals work similarly, but then food makes more things possible as others pointed out.

        1. Good thread. I ascribe to the idea of pairing each dish with the best wine for that dish, regardless of cost, WS points, etc. Normally, I'll start lighter, working up to bigger, bolder, and then taper off to older. That is out the window, depending on the courses. Regardless of the pairings during the meal, I do like to finish with a cheese-course to pair with an older Bdx. or great Cal-Cab, before dessert. Often these will be a second wine for the main, but not always.

          For wine tastings (I know you are speaking of a dinner here), I still do light whites first, working up to heavier reds. Only problem that I have ever had was when all of the heavier reds were GONE! by the time that I got to them. That is a price that I pay, though not gladly. If I'm just there to drink, then I might head to my "favorites" first, regardless of weight, etc., but I'm usually doing a pre-purchasing tasting, so I need to evaluate each wine and big reds first, kinda' kill light whites later on.

          As for this being a Swedish thing, I have not heard of it, but then Scandanavia is probably the only blood-line, that I do not have...

          Because of the progression of most of my dinners, one could probably say that the better wines come later, Sauternes with Foie Gras being an exception.

          I'm gonna' follow this thread, as it poses some interesting concepts.

          Hunt

          1. I serve based upon course pairings and also attempt to go in a general ascending order of body/weight/sweetness. A Chablis always comes before a modern CA Cab, otherwise, you won't taste it. (On the other hand, it is relatively easy to switch back and forth between a medium-bodied red Burgundy and a more powerful CA Chardonnay.)

            My serious wine drinking nights often have wines of roughly equivelant quality -- or, I should say, wines that we all hoped would be of a certain quality.

            That said, last week we were drinking some fine wines with dinner (largely Grand Cru Burgundies) but we were still thirsty. We went back to my friend's house, already slightly tipsy, but not drunk... sat on the floor of his cellar and he started pulling out options... it was 1962 Quinta do Noval 'Nacional' time. Sometimes you do want to end with a bang.