Thinking Outside the Bottle: Presenting Your Homemade Wine

You are proud of your homemade wine! And you should be. It takes time, patience, knowledge, and skill to craft an excellent adult beverage. Those of us who make wine at home enjoy it on many occasions. It can be as simple as a glass of rosé on a summer evening or a bold red with a weekend barbecue. Sometimes, though, you would really like to showcase one or more of your wines for friends and family. It is easy to do that and today’s column can help you explore some of the ways. Excellent opportunities abound: Cocktail hour, planned pairings, and multicourse dinners are some of them.

Cocktail Hour!

For cocktail hour, consider friends mingling in your living room or, in nice weather, enjoying your deck or patio. Showing off homemade wines in that setting can take several forms. The simplest, of course, is just to pull some corks and put out an array of your favorite hobby results. For more advanced effects, you can go ahead and use your homemade wines to make some cocktails. For one approach, first convert a table wine into an aperitif, as described in my article “Aperitifs” (see here). Once you have your aperitif, try one of the drink recipes with that article or get out your favorite bartender’s guidebook and improvise some of your own.

Easier is incorporating some of your dry table wine into a tasty cocktail. When my friend Kimi Anderson and I decided to make linguica (Portuguese sausage) to serve to our families, we thought the dinner also deserved its own cocktail. She experimented as the sausage was in the smoker to develop Kimi’s Sangria: Pour into a pitcher one bottle of light-bodied dry red wine such as Pinot Noir or Grenache (country fruit wines work well in this recipe, too). Stir in 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) honey (or to taste) and 2 oz. (59 mL) triple sec or other orange-flavored liqueur. Coarsely chunk one-half orange, one-half lemon, and one lime. Add to wine, taste, and add one or two Tbsp. (15–30 mL) simple syrup to adjust sweetness if needed. Cover and chill. Just before serving, stir in ice and add about 6 oz. (180 mL) club soda for a little sparkle. Garnish with orange slices.

Last summer, my wife Marty and I experimented with some white wine cocktails as well. For a classic Kir cocktail, we used our estate Chardonnay: A cool-climate, high acid, unoaked white wine. First, place ½ oz. (15 mL) crème de cassis liqueur in a large wine glass. Top with chilled white wine and stir to mix. Another simple white wine cocktail, this time with a homemade Russian River Sauvignon Blanc, was a limonata spritzer. Place ice in a tall cocktail glass and fill to 2⁄3 with your favorite homemade white. Top with limonata (sparkling lemon soda) and garnish with a lemon twist.

Mix and Match Tastings

A planned food and wine pairing session is another great way to showcase homemade wine. This can be for something as casual as a picnic with friends or as formal as a presentation to your local home winemaking club. Since you made the wines, select those first, then present each wine with one or two small bites that you think will especially enhance the combination. For a stand-up party, you can simply arrange platters of the foods around the room with the chosen wine featured nearby. For a presentation, you can arrange the small bites in a circle on each attendee’s plate and then have them taste along as you describe what you are presenting.

While many classic pairings do work very well, applying a bit of sensory science can help you stretch your ideas. One good pairing concept is “like goes with like.” That is, similar aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel for the food and the wine are likely to bring more pleasure together than either one alone. It is this kind of thinking that has produced the oversimplified (but useful) “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” guideline. The delicate aromas and flavors of many white wines can pair nicely with similar delicacy in some seafood dishes. The robust, full-bodied character of charred beef is nicely paired with a fruity and tannic big red wine.

Another plan that can work well is deliberately highlighting a contrast between the wine and the food. You can see this principle at work in such choices as a sweet dessert with an even sweeter wine. Or a bright, high-acid sparkling wine with fatty, salty food like a liver pâté. To understand what is going on, it is useful to look at the physiology of taste. In the broad sense I am using here, taste is a complex interaction of chemical signals detected by taste buds in the mouth, physical feel of the food or beverage, and odors of the food and wine. Odors can arrive at the olfactory bulb when sniffed through the nose or can rise through the sinuses while the food or wine is in your mouth.

Of the five basic “tastes,” only sweet, sour, and bitter are commonly encountered in wine. The other two, umami (or savoriness) and salt usually need not be considered in wine. The physical effects of wine in the mouth are generally the drying effect from tannins linking with mouth proteins and the heat or prickliness of ethanol and other alcohols. Together, these produce the sensation we call “body” in the wine. When pairing with foods, a good guideline is to look for lighter foods to go with light-bodied wines like young whites, rosés, and possibly some un-oaked reds. Look for rich, full-flavored foods to pair with full-bodied wines.

For a demonstration pairing at GENCO (the Garage Enologists of North County) in Healdsburg, California, club members offered up four wines. To go with them, volunteers made bite-size servings of eight foods: Two for each wine. With a Chardonnay, we offered a chilled boiled shrimp and a wedge of Brie cheese. The shrimp made a stellar match, with the slightly chewy texture and delicate flavor highlighting the wine’s full body and white fruit flavors. The cheese was a bit less successful, with its fattiness masking some of the wine character. For a young Tempranillo rosé, we served a bite of baked ham and a whole ripe strawberry. Both were excellent companions, in different ways. The salty, smoky notes from the ham brought out minerality and red fruit character in the wine, while the strawberry accentuated its youthful fruitiness with matching flavors. A sautéed mushroom and a bite of baked salmon were offered with a cool-climate barrel-aged Pinot Noir. While we expected the cooked richness of the mushroom to highlight barrel notes in the wine, nothing special appeared in that pairing; good but not distinctive. The salmon was exciting, with the fattiness of the fish contrasting beautifully with the acid of the cool-climate wine. It definitely revealed the limitations of always matching fish with white wine! Our final pairing was a Cabernet Sauvignon with rare roast beef and a dark chocolate truffle. Both were very good matches that pulled tastes of the wine in very different directions. The juicy protein character of the meat was a nice contrast to the tannic grip of the wine. The chocolate bite, bordering on bitter, made the Cabernet present its underlying fruitiness, making it taste almost Port-like.

Sip Through Dinner

You can apply the same principles to a multi-course dinner served with multiple wines. Choose your wines first, then assemble your menu to match. For a Spanish-themed dinner for six, Marty and I did just that. Appetizer tapas included Manchego sheep milk cheese, canned marinated mussels, a spreadable sheep cheese, Spanish-style cured chorizo sausage, romesco dip (sweet red pepper, almonds, and olive oil), and sliced baguettes. Homemade wines were a Sierra Foothills Viognier and a Potter Valley Grenache Rosé. The Viognier, a fairly full-bodied wine for a white, matched very well with both sheep cheeses. Acid was high enough to contrast with fattiness of the cheese and the fruity aromas highlighted the fresh-milk aroma of the spreadable cheese. Expecting a good match with the mussels, we actually found that the rosé worked better there. With some red wine having gone into the marinade, the red-fruit character of the wine provided a better match. The wine had good acidity with the grapes having been harvested at lower Brix specifically to make rosé. That wine also proved best at taking on the sweet red pepper flavors of the romesco and the spiciness of the chorizo.

For the main course, we served chicken thighs braised in smoked paprika (pimentón) sauce and a vegetable paella with peppers and peas. We guessed red wine would be a good pairing because of the richness of thigh meat and the smoked paprika sauce. That proved to be the case. While the Grenache rosé from the first course was fine with paella, it was overwhelmed by the chicken. With that, our other pairing worked much better, a Sierra Foothills Tinta Cão. While traditionally used in Port-style winemaking, as a dry red table wine it was full-bodied and moderately tannic. It balanced the fattiness of the meat and had enough red-fruit character to help the paprika show the fruitiness of its sweet-pepper origins.

Since you are reading this column at the year-end holiday period, I want to leave you with a festive thought. Legally, hard cider from apples or pears is regulated as a wine. As a home winemaker, I encourage you to try making hard cider, too, if you don’t already. And once you have some homemade cider on hand, showcase it with this warm cocktail for winter: Hot Spiked Cider. In a medium saucepan, warm 750 mL of hard cider. Add one cinnamon stick, 3 or 4 whole allspice berries, 6 whole cloves, and 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) honey. Simmer 5 minutes. In each of four mugs or heatproof glasses, pour one ounce (29 mL) of apple brandy. Fill with hot cider, stir, and enjoy.

So there you have it. Whether it’s a casual cocktail hour, an organized small-bites pairing, or a multi-course meal, show off your wines!