Sips & Nibbles: Small Plate & Wine Tasting

If you're looking for a fun take on the traditional dinner party, why not invite your guests over for an easy-to-throw-together wine and small plate tasting? All you need is a little bit of planning time and a couple hours of cooking, and you'll be ready to roll.

The idea is to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your friends. Plus, how fun is it to open up several different bottles of wine and taste them all? This is one party that's truly as enjoyable to host as it is to attend.

 Make a Plan

Give your party a theme to make it more memorable, and to give yourself focus for what to serve. A great idea is to take a virtual vacation and serve bottles and dishes from a certain wine-producing country or region. Think Italy, France, Napa or even Upstate New York, which offers a lot more tasty wines than you may realize.

A selection of 5 or 6 varieties is a good number to use, and include a mix of reds and whites. In general, 2 bottles of each will be enough for a group of 8-10 people, but you might want to up it to 3 just to make sure you've got plenty so your guests can have all they want of their favorites. Save any extras for a future party or, if there's enough, offer a bottle to each guest/couple to take home.

Important: Be sure to think ahead and consider how many glasses you'll need for this party, and have plenty of wine charms on hand to keep glasses straight. Stock up on some inexpensive glassware, which is great to have on hand for all your parties, or for large groups, consider renting a rack of glasses from a caterer.

What to Serve

The idea is to create small bites, canapΓ©s or tapas to pair with each varietal. Don't shy away from pre-prepared frozen apps or tasty treats you can order from the local Spanish place, for example. To get you started, here are some pairing ideas:

  • Champagne with smoked salmon & cucumber canapΓ©s on puffed pastry
  • Prosecco with prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe bites
  • Sauvignon Blanc with herbed goat cheese & crackers
  • Dry Riesling with spicy tuna sushi rolls
  • Pinot Noir with lamb chops & fruit chutney
  • Merlot and baby back ribs
  • Cabernet with filet mignon medallions & blue cheese
  • Port with dark chocolate-covered strawberries

The trick is to pair wines with dishes from their same region. Tuscan chianti goes great with a cheese ravioli with marinara sauce, for instance. Still, when in doubt, just keep it simple and offer a cheese plate, charcuterie, grapes and baguettes.

If you want more pairing suggestions, ask your local wine shop or check out my tips in Wine for Non Snobs.

How to Set Things Up

Create separate tasting stations for each pairing you create and use your wines to guide the order in which you'll serve dishes. You want to progress from light whites to robust reds and end with sweet dessert wine like port or a sauternes.

Put out small white plates and napkins, and be sure there's plenty of water on hand to cleanse the palate between tastings ... and to keep everyone hydrated.

Take time once your guests arrive to walk them through the different pairings then explain the theme and how the night's going to go. For a special touch, add a framed tasting menu to the display and provide small notebooks and pens so guests can jot down their evaluations.

Be sure to enjoy and savor each pairing before moving on to the next, and once you've gone through them all, invite your guests to revisit their favorites and vote for their top choice. Count the ballots toward the end of the party and announce the winners. Send guests home with copies of the tasting menu and a list of the wines as a memento of your awesome night!