If you like to cook, chances are good that your pantry is well stocked with sundry staples, from rice and pasta to canned broth and tomatoes. If you like to entertain, it helps to keep a cache of wines on hand, too.
This idea has nothing to do with cellaring—an exercise that takes space and money, and usually over time leans heavily toward a homogeneous collection. On the contrary, a savvy entertainer can keep as little as a case of wine at the ready and be prepared for just about any sort of hosting need. The key is in the mix. Just as a well-stocked pantry can be applied to a range of dishes, a diverse stash of wines puts you in a position to uncork (or unscrew, as the case may be) the right wine for the right context.
To illustrate this notion, here are 10 distinct types of wine that can be called into action for a range of entertaining needs. And in the spirit of keeping it real, the general types are fleshed out with specific bottlings recently spied at three Westchester retailers—Le Wine Shop in Larchmont, Suburban Wines & Spirits in Yorktown Heights, and Rochambeau Wines & Liquors in Dobbs Ferry—and whose advice thankfully goes way beyond ratings and can be tailored to fit just about any budget.
Americans continue to pigeonhole bubbly as the wine of celebration. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t forget that sparkling wine’s cleansing quality makes it quite food-friendly as well. For the sake of image, go for the real McCoy—Champagne—such as Jacquesson Brut ($39). But for value and versatility, choose a crowd-pleasing Italian Prosecco (e.g., Zardetto, $13). Gruet Brut Rosé ($15) is not only as lovely to taste as it is to admire, but it’s also good for sheer shock value, having been made by French ex-pats in New Mexico, of all places.
Pinot Grigio is the standard example of a light white; it works well as a lunch wine or as a sipping aperitif. But you can flex your wine chops and get more impact from similar wines that are not quite as innocuous. Austrian Grüner Veltliner (Huber, $12), dry Chenin Blanc from South Africa (Mulderbosch, $14), and Soave (Allegrini, $11) all will deliver more flavor and, like Pinot Grigio, have no oak to distract from pure fruit and crispness.
Based on the same grape that made Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre hits back in the 1980s, these scintillating whites from Kiwi Land are loaded with citrus/passion fruit and mouthwatering acidity. Less lean than their more austere, minerally French cousins, they will please most any white-wine aficionado and have the zing to complement high-acid foods (think goat cheese, lemon, or vinaigrettes). They also will demonstrate your progressive entertaining mindset—in New Zealand, screwtops rule. Style and price among New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are remarkably consistent, and you just can’t go wrong with a Giesen ($13), Rain ($15), or Kim Crawford ($17).
Often misinterpreted as exclu- sively sweet, well-balanced Riesling is actually a real chameleon, able to adapt to assorted dishes—chicken, ham, fish…practically anything short of beef. You can go with a simple, off-dry German bottling (Urban, $12), a modern, dry epitome of elegance (Eroica from Washington, $22), or perhaps a home-state favorite from the Finger Lakes (Swedish Hill, $15).
Tired of California Chardon- nay? Even if you aren’t, you can make a statement by stocking at least one white wine that can mimic Chard’s fleshy, ripe, full-bodied style, but without the albatross of overt oak and butter. Options can range from an old-ish Alsace Pinot Gris (1999 Trimbach, $23) to a seafood-loving Albariño from the northwest corner of Spain (Fefiñanes, $22) to a nifty blend like Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Blanc–Viognier ($13).
While red wines are by nature heftier than whites (thanks to extended skin contact that extracts more flavor and tannin from the grapes’ skins), they still cover a spectrum in terms of body and intensity. Less potent examples, which tend to be less expensive as well, actually can be more versatile at the table because their modest character is less likely to clash with food. Merlot has long been a staple representing this style, but as with light whites that can outshine Pinot Grigio, you can do better without spending much more money. Examples include a modest Bordeaux from the superb 2005 vintage (La Rose Tour Blanche, $10), a Spanish Garnacha (Borsao “Monte Oton,” $10), or country French wine, such as Walden 2005 Roussillon ($15).
Pinot (as Noir fans like to say) had its star turn in the movie Sideways and has never looked back. Production has not taken off (it is notoriously fickle and not so generous in the vineyard), but its prestige is here to stay. Like Riesling among whites, Pinot is a red-wine shapeshifter, with enough intensity, body, and texture to stand up to diverse dishes, plus a palate-pleasing fruit-acid balance that keeps calling you back. Ask a retailer if you don’t already have a favorite: the good stuff is never cheap, and he or she will happily steer you. Fine, ready-to-drink Pinots can be found from California (Morgan, $32), Oregon (Erath, $19), and Burgundy (Louis Jadot 2002 Pommard, $49).
If a main course is like a main event, it makes sense to aim your big guns at this target. Every savvy host should have a few prize bottles on hand, wines that stand out for their quality and pedigree. And while that combination will cost a few bucks, think of how much more cost-efficient it is to uncork these beauties at home rather than at a restaurant.
From the Old World (Europe), stick to the classics, such as a Bordeaux from a great vintage. Like it fresh and young? Go for a second label from 2005 such as Admiral de Beychevelle ($41); decanted, this bottle is ready for prime time. If you fancy the smoothness and complexity that becomes more pronounced with bottle age, Rochambeau (a retailer that boldly eschewed ordering any 2005 “futures” due to skyrocketing prices) has plenty of older vintages, such as a 2001 Frank Phelan for $26. If you want to seem au courant, tell your guests that Spain is the new France and serve a rich, earthy, food-flattering Rioja Gran Reserva, such as La Rioja Alta’s “904” ($55).
The current wine boom in America is being fueled primarily by New World wines, which tend to be a bit flashier and consciously hip. There are plenty of delicious ways to go, such as a cheeky-but-powerful Aussie Shiraz (like Two Hands “Gnarly Dudes” ($33); a daring kitchen-sink blend like Clos de la Siete’s mash-up of Cabernet, Malbec, and Syrah from red-hot Argentina; or an organic Californian, à la Robert Sinskey’s Bordeaux-style blend called “POV” ($40). Bear in mind that, especially at higher price points, New World wines are typically “bigger” (as in stronger in the alcohol department) than most Old World standards.
Are you content playing it safe with your sweet stuff and just serving coffee? Here’s where the ambitious host can really leave an impression, as the world’s panoply of sweet wines is drastically underutilized in America. The only real rule when serving dessert wines is to make sure the potable is sweeter than the edible. Brachetto d’Acqui—a disarmingly sweet, red, berry-licious sparkling wine from Piedmont (Marenco, $20)—is fabulous with any berry dessert or dark chocolate. For a nutty dessert, try a syrupy but not cloying Pedro Ximénez (“PX”) Sherry (Alvear “1927” Solera, $20/375 ml). And while anything creamy, golden, or fruity will go great with the classic late-harvest Sauternes, you might look even smarter serving a less expensive and fresher-tasting golden elixir from nearby Jurançon (Chateau Jolys, $20).
Katonah-based W. R. Tish is a “recovering” wine critic who now develops wine seminars, tastings, and events through his website, wineforall.com.