The Best and Worst Wines for a Potluck
Here in New England we'd had our fill of winter by Valentine's Day. Now it's Daylight Savings and there's no relief in sight. But just when everyone's about to go stir crazy, in pops this note: Party here Saturday. Bring a dish. And a bottle of wine.
Potlucks break a cabin fever. They're casual and boisterous serve-yourself affairs. People arrive at odd times, and soon it's standing room only. If you do manage a place to sit, you'll find yourself in a comfy chair, your plate on one knee and the dog's happy chin on the other.
Despite their Mud Season appeal, potlucks are popular here year-round. By late June you ready yourself for the call to come the Strawberry Party and help devour the fifty pounds of berries friends picked that misty-cool morning. You provide foods that go with strawberries: pound cake, crème anglaise, lime mousse, chocolate. Mercifully someone almost always brings a main course. And to drink? Champagne, of course.
Then there's the annual Garlic, Butter, and Chocolate Party. Guests are tasked with supplying a dish made with one or more of the "The Big Three," and yes, there's always mole, plus at least one creative dessert. Roasted garlic butterscotch brownies, anyone?
Themed or not, a potluck spread is always chancy. The food has to travel well, usually in big bowls and platters that can be slung onto the buffet. There are few options made à la minute: no pan-seared beef medallions, no crêpes flambées, no Hollandaise. I once threw a party where five people brought green salad and two brought cookies. Period.
Even with the revelers manage to cover the courses, the flavors are a trip around the world: Indian curry, Greek salad, Tex-Mex enchiladas, Swedish meatballs, Mama's Lasagna. The unifying theme, if any, is diversity.
So what about that wine? What can you take to a potluck that'll taste good amid the noise of flavors, textures, and styles? Below I'll offer my top recommendations, but first, let's consider the wines I think really don't work for potlucks:
Subtle wines. Wines with restrained aromatics and nuanced flavors tend to get drowned out in the din. Vintage Champagne, cold-climate reds, skin-contact whites—these tend to show best with more subtle cuisine.
Rare wines. Sure, everyone will want to try that '47 Cheval Blanc, but those lucky enough to taste it might only get an ounce. Save it for an intimate sit-down dinner when a few guests can linger over its elegant complexity.
Obscure wines. Here's the most common scenario: You arrive, plunk your bottle onto the drinks table, then meander off toward the buffet. You don't want to hang around to explain that Dobričić is sort of like Zinfandel, or Valdigué is sort of like Beaujolais, only from California.
Crappy wines. Plunk-and-run does not give you an excuse to empty the back of your closet. If you don't want to drink that bottle of Blue Nun your cousin gave you three Christmases ago, your friends probably don't, either.
Wines That Work
So what wines should you bring to potluck parties? Generally speaking, you need wines with zesty acidity and bright fruit flavors. Their lively spirit matches the party vibe, and their juiciness keeps them food-friendly and flexible.
Whites with good aromatics and reds with some grip from tannins are more likely to show well in a boisterous stand-up party than wines that are too restrained. Avoid high-alcohol wines, though; they tend to mute the flavors of food and tire out people's palates (and brains). Sparkling wines and wines with a touch of sweetness are versatile with a range of cuisine—and just plain fun. Here are some specific recommendations:
White wines that are un-oaked tend to be more compatible with food than their oaked counterparts. On the other hand, the heft and texture of oak aging can bring whites into alignment with richer foods like macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie. If you're in a wine shop, ask for wines that are clean, bright, and aromatic, whether they're herbal or tropical.
Chardonnay, especially un-oaked, because its lemony notes make it great with salads, cold salmon, and fresh cheeses, and its acidity helps balance richer dishes like potatoes gratinée or Chicken Marbella.
Albariño is a briny, lemony white from Galicia, Spain, that's wonderfully bracing. There are plenty available at modest prices—I like the Martín Códax, which is less than $20. Check out the Albariños now being made in California, too, especially the bottlings from Lodi.
Grüner Veltliner. This Austrian white with a lively citrus, apricot, and mineral aspect is always a crowd-pleaser—even if some at the beverage table may struggle with the pronunciation (GROO-ner felt-LEE-ner). Try options from Stadlmann, Graf Hardegg, or Anton Bauer, all of which offer terrific Grüners for $15 to $18.
Off-dry Riesling goes with everything. Well, nearly everything. It goes with salad, cheese, chicken, fish, cured meats, rare red meats, desserts. Look for "halbtrocken" or "feinherb" on the label, Kabinett if you want to keep it light or deeper, sweeter Spätlese if you're sure there will be a cheese plate or something spicy.
Sparkling wines. Bubbles make a party more fun, and there are lots of great options at around $20. Try Ferrari's Trentodoc Brut, which is a true traditional method sparkling wine (made like Champagne) that's 100% Chardonnay. Cava from Spain is another great option; I like Codorníu's "Anna," both white and rosé, for $15. Sparkling Pinot Noir, like Meinklang's biodynamic frizzante rosé, is always a hit at my parties.
Red wines are sometimes more popular at parties, especially in cold weather. With a variety of dishes on the buffet, you want to strike a middle ground: look for wines with vibrant fruit but modest structure. These reds can stand up to beefy tomato sauces or rich pork dishes, but still feel fresh and complementary with vegetables. In particular, seek out:
Barbera. This wine from Piedmont has juicy acidity and a nice bitter snap from tannins that makes it delicious with a range of fare. Try Scagiola's Barbera "Mati" or Vietti's Dolcetto d'Alba "Tre Vigne." Also try other Italian options made from Sangiovese or Nero d'Avola—Italian reds are made with food in mind.
Grenache, both bottled alone and in Côtes du Rhône blends. I love the wine's spicy, peppery flavors as a complement to Mediterranean cuisine, but Grenache is also great with meats, cheeses, charcuterie, and eggplant or mushroom dishes. Try the Côtes du Rhônes from Domaine La Janasse or Domaine La Garrigues. Both are delicious Grenache-dominant blends costing less than $15. Consider Garnacha from Spain, too!
Zinfandel. Zin's always a crowd-pleaser, with its zesty berry fruits and chocolaty tannins. Try to find one that's under 15% ABV. Dashe Cellars makes a bottling called "Les Enfants Terribles;" the 2012, now on the market, weighs in at 13.9%. Look for other Zins from California's Dry Creek Valley AVA.
Gamay-based Beaujolais, Austrian Zweigelt, and Spanish offerings like Monastrell or red blends from Penedes all share that juicy, spicy quality that lets them pair with a range of foods.
You can drink well without spending a fortune for potluck wines. (You weren't really going to open that Cheval Blanc, were you?). Do consider bag-in-box wines—there are now great options that didn't exist even five years ago; ask your favorite wine shop to recommend one. The 3-liter format often works out to as little as $10 per liter. Plus, their handy spigots let guests easily serve themselves, potluck style.
About the Author: Meg Houston Maker is a New England-based wine writer and managing editor of Grape Collective, and she also contributes regularly to other wine, food, and lifestyle publications. Find her musings about the pleasures of the table at Maker's Table and follow her on Twitter at @megmaker.
Martín Códax, Codorníu, Ferrari, and Stadlmann were provided as samples for review consideration.