TORONTO - A New Year's Eve spread can mean many different culinary flavours and textures, which can leave hosts who want to provide the perfect pairing of wine and food scratching their heads in puzzlement.
Master sommelier John Szabo acknowledges it's almost impossible to find one single wine that would be perfect with the assortment of dishes found at most parties.
"What I've done in the past, and it seems to work pretty well, is just to open up a bunch of wines, two or three bottles, or four depending on how many people you've got over, and let people mix and match and try different things with different dishes, and ultimately they'll gravitate to their favourite wine or the wine that works best with the food that they're enjoying most and usually everyone's happy at that point."
His new book, "Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies" (John Wiley and Sons), is a comprehensive guide that helps the novice grasp the basics of aroma, flavour and taste and select the best wine match for every dish. A large section of the book is devoted to his advice on which style of wine to serve with classic dishes of various cuisines.
For an appetizer-only New Year's party, the Toronto-based Szabo, who has been a sommelier for more than a decade, says sparkling wines go with almost any food.
"They're light, they don't have high alcohol, the acidity is crisp and refreshing and sort of cleanses your mouth between bites of whatever you're eating."
It doesn't have to be Champagne either.
"Canada makes a brilliant range of sparkling wines using the same method as they do in Champagne and they're about half the price," says Szabo, who got his start working with chefs in Paris kitchens, then worked in the wine importing business when he returned to Canada before becoming a sommelier.
"In fact, I would say the top Canadian sparkling wines that come in around $30 are even better than the lower end of Champagne, which is around $50 or $60, so you're paying about half the money and getting better wine."
Other white choices with a range of appetizers should be light and fruity, such as a dry or off-dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay.
"Oaky Chardonnays are a bit more limited in their food and wine pairing scope," says Szabo.
Aromatic Gewurztraminer is a crowd-splitter. "I find that people either love it or they hate it," Szabo says. "It's the kind of wine you want to avoid for these sort of parties. You want a wine that everyone's going to love or at least not be offended by."
With reds, aim for more elegant versatile Pinot Noir or Gamay and steer away from oaked, aged wines.
"Again, you're not looking for perfect harmony with any specific dishes but just looking for ones that are generally versatile, which means a little bit more acid, a little bit less oak, moderate alcohol and nice fruity flavours," says Szabo.
When you're shopping, don't be afraid to ask for help. A consultant or salesperson can give you advice on what will have the widest appeal.
"On average, people prefer fruit to earth flavours and they like soft textures compared to hard and mouth-gripping. Soft, round, fruity," says Szabo.
It's traditional to pop the cork on sparkling wine or Champagne to welcome in the new year, but Szabo says that's probably the worst time to open your most expensive bottle — "usually because you've already been imbibing throughout the course of the evening and probably had some sweets at some point and then you go back to a bone-dry Champagne and from a sommelier food and wine pairing perspective, moment perspective, it's not a great time.
"But you know what? Who cares? People are having fun."
Some people like to start eating again just after midnight with a seafood spread, perhaps, or more appetizers, at which point a dry sparkling wine is perfect, says Szabo.
"But if you're wrapping up the night and you've already had a long meal and moved on to the dessert course or even a cheese course, then certainly a sweet dessert wine would be a better option."
If you're going to consume a variety of wines over the course of a dinner or evening, "work your way up from lighter to heavier, fresher to riper styles of wine. So the wine you're drinking doesn't leave you wishing you were drinking the one before that."
Szabo recommends buying or renting quality glasses.
"The stemware makes a big difference just in terms of the perception of the wine," he says. "So I would even recommend spending a little bit less on the wine — a dollar or two less per bottle — and an extra few cents on the glassware to get good-quality stemware."
He is not a fan of stemless glassware, particularly at cocktail parties with finger food because "you're holding the bowl of the glass and you end up with fingerprints all over the glass and it looks messy and you're warming up the wine because you're holding the bowl of the glass in your hand.
"So although it takes up less cupboard space and they're handy in that respect and dishwasher safe and all that, as a vessel for use with wine I don't find them that useful."