Wine Dinner Menu

A basic guide to planning a wine dinner menu


I recently wrote about hosting a wine-tasting party. Several readers wrote back, asking about what food I serve at my food and wine dinners. One of the problems with hosting a wine tasting, and I am incredibly guilty of this, is that the host oftentimes is working so hard in the kitchen that he or she doesn’t have enough time to enjoy the wines and the company.

I still go overboard at times, but I’ve realized that, as is so often the case, less is more! It’s tough to put together a menu that will work for all wines, and in fact working on one that suits a set of wines perfectly is but the first step down the path to a gorgeously over-involved dinner!

Yes, I love matching six courses with six flights of wine, but when I want to spend more time with my guests, not to mention the wines, I know it’s time to simplify!
Related Imagery
Rosso di Sagrantino

Rosso di Sagrantino can produce pretty intense wines, and this dish can handle that power with ease. Try to find one with a few years of age on it as the wines develop a nice earthy component that forms a flavor bridge with the mushrooms.

Download Recipe
This is an easy-to-prepare-ahead baked pasta that is remarkably easy to make. It's also a dish that pairs well with many wines and lends itself to tinkering.
So, what to do? Well, since summer has passed and I’m already in full-fledged red wine mode, I’ll share with you a little bit of how I put together a wine-tasting dinner for me and my friends. And I’m going to make it simple, I promise!

Ideally a wine dinner should have a few courses, so here is how I like to structure mine.

First course – Classic antipasto

I usually serve up a nice spread of preserved meats: salami, bresaola, mortadella, and speck, all arranged around some sliced fresh mozzarella with baskets of bread on the side.

In addition, having a bowl of mixed olives and some marinated grilled eggplant and zucchini helps to complete this monster first course. I love to begin a meal this way because it’s easy to prepare ahead. It’s all purchased food, and it fills people up, meaning there’s less cooking to be done later.

Second course – Pasta or risotto

I usually serve a baked pasta dish for this course, and while it is an easy, make-ahead item, it does take planning. Of course, the benefits outweigh the problems here, since you can throw your pasta in the oven and it will stay hot much longer than freshly cooked pasta. I’m a big fan of serving pasta with mushrooms, so I’d suggest something along the lines of pasta (I like to use fusilli bucati, the classic hollow corkscrew shape) baked with pancetta, mushrooms, and leeks. My recipe can be found below, or download it from the sidebar on the left.

Third course – Meat and potatoes

Here’s where it really pays to keep it simple. I’ve gone all out for the main course many a time and, while the planning is fun, the execution can ruin a night -- either yours or your guests. Maybe even both! I mean, who wants to get up in the middle of a great dinner to go cook for 20 minutes or more? And will you be in any shape to actually do that after a few flights of wine?

I’d rather spend that time at the table, doing what people do at the table at wine dinners, which is to say, mostly drinking wine! So, my main course solution is to make something simple like a roast beef; a whole filet is dramatic and simple or, if you want to get a little creative, meatloaf.

Yes, good old meatloaf, don’t shy away from it. You can whip up some pretty gourmet meatloaves, and they are not only easy to make and serve, but they can work wonderfully with a variety of wines! It’s meatloaf to the rescue! And besides, leftover meatloaf sandwiches rock!

A simple side of mashed potatoes works well with either meat course, though in all honesty I tend to serve polenta (I love my polenta -- childhood memories and all) more often than not. Another solution that works especially well is a variety of roasted vegetables. You may have to time each vegetable a little differently, or roast them individually before dinner then just reheat them together, but a bowl of roasted brussel sprouts, carrots, parsnips and potatoes makes a perfect side dish for almost any meal.

Fourth course – Cheese

I love ending a meal with cheese. I’m not a big fan of sweets in general, and much prefer the complexity afforded by a selection of cheeses to the mass of a typical dessert. And the cheese plate lends itself so well to grazing that it allows the meal to taper off, rather than serving as that final exclamation point. Although some desserts I’ve had may have been more of a question mark.

When I put together a cheese plate I like to pair wines and cheese from the same country or region, though that is often impossible. Including a variety of cheese increases the chances that your guests will find a wine and cheese match that’s perfect for them. Also, by buying a lot of cheese there is some left over for you to enjoy! I always look at the cheese plate as an excuse to stock up on some cheese I don’t often buy.

My cheese plate will generally include six to eight cheeses -- yes I like cheese, a lot, and go over board, a bit. I always have a slab of parmiggiano chiseled off the quarter wheel I keep in my fridge. I wasn’t joking, I like cheese. Then there’s usually a nice blue, a pair of sheep and goat’s milk cheeses (one young and one aged of each) and a stinky cheese or two, maybe one other washed rind cow’s milk cheese. And of course, bread, crackers, crisps, and whatever other baked goodies seem appropriate to support all this cheese. 

So, that’s my basic guide to a menu for your next wine dinner. There are so many variations and permutations that I could probably write up one a week for the rest of my life and never repeat, but I hope you get the picture here. Experiment and be creative. Learn how much work you are willing and able to do, and build from there.

The more I have hosted wine dinners, the more I have simplified them. Your plan might be different. The point is to find your comfort zone and go with it. Combining good wine, good food, and good company has made for the greatest nights of my life. Here’s hoping that you have the same experience!

See the recipe on page 2.

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Vine Master Fanucchi
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    46167 371

    Food (the kind you chew - Wine should really be considered part of the meal & thus truly food too, but then that is a whole other topic...) Is Certainly the natural part of enjoying wine but I have Two Comments.
    1) If you, as you state at the beginning of this article, want to be 100% simple & need to get something that universally goes with all wines; here:
    A) Fresh Water
    B) Simple bread
    ... Enjoy the wine with your friends! :-)

    2) Good white wines (not the vast majority which are mostly just a Butter & Vanilla/Oak blur) are a great compliment (as good or even far better than most reds) to a wide array of the traditional dishes served at holiday feasts!
    For Example: The Fanucchi Vineyards 2006 Trousseau Gris with Turkey & Pumpkin Pie, or Crab and so many other things that are "in season" in the winter!
    Their are a multitude of other great pairings for my Trousseau Gris and many other Good white wines who's flavors come primarily from the food they are crafted from; flavorful grapes! (Sorry even in our area most Chardonnay can't measure up - especially if it comes from a very large winery because they are mostly neutral of flavor to begin with.)

    Oct 22, 2010 at 2:02 PM

  • Snooth User: schellbe
    Hand of Snooth
    247770 225

    Can the cheese be served before the meat course and the inevitable red wine?
    I suffer an anaphylactic reaction when I mix red wine and cheese. Other combinations are fine as long as I avoid moldy fruits and dressings. And white wine and cheese is okay.

    Oct 22, 2010 at 5:10 PM

  • Snooth User: kathym50
    215725 1

    This sounds like my kind of wine dinner - I might omit the "meat and potatoes" as your pasta menu sounds very rich - or serve it all. However, given your menu recommendations, how about giving us some ideas about the wines - we know what you would serve with your pasta - which sounds delicious - are we staying Italian & Red and, etc. - give us a couple of recommendations.

    In the past, I have hosted some wine tasting dinners - as hosts, we picked a wine to go with the various courses and then asked our guests to bring a wine they would like to try with the menu items - my invitation included the dishes and what spices and flavors were in each dish. We compared our picks vs what the guests brought and recorded what everyone liked the best - it was very fun.

    Another wine dinner featured your basic spaghetti and meatballs as a main course - again, as hosts we picked wines that we wanted to serve. We asked our guests to bring a bottle of wine that they thought would complement the dishes and no one could spend more than $15 per bottle - it too was great fun - the guests whose wine got the most points won a prize - prizes were inexpensive - I think we had some cute wine corks, cocktail napkins, golf paraphernalia, (as we are a golfing/drinking group)!

    Now that I'm talking about this, I think it's time to plan another party - this time meatloaf sounds fun!!!

    Oct 22, 2010 at 10:02 PM

  • Snooth User: fullbottle
    268893 15

    Good article - there is nothing worse than being so busy on the night that you get to enjoy mostly your own company with a hot kitchen.

    Another good and easy course for the perfect dinner party is soup - made days ahead with just the finishing touches to do on the night to impress and crafted to suit the season. Also pretty easy to match with wine.

    Oct 23, 2010 at 4:48 AM

  • I agree with Kathym50...subtract the meat/potatoes course, as the "appetizer" course seems to consist of plenty of meat, veggie, and starch (bread); pasta is filling; the cheese platter course rounds it all out, nicely. Add a variety of chocolates! Yup, I'd rather be enjoying my guests than wrestling with the kitchen!

    Oct 23, 2010 at 8:59 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Hate to be a stickler, but soup is hard to match wine to, and chocolate doesn't match most any wine at all.

    If it's lighter fare you're after then you can go for more of a tasting menu, but this doesn't really mean less work.

    Greg's courses are oriented towards substantial reds like Bordeauxs, California, Australian and South American reds, Northern Italian reds (Piedmont, Tuscany) and maybe even some Burgundies. It all depends on what wines you want to showcase. Different wines will call for a different menu.

    I think that, as a statement of philosophical approach, Greg's meal points absolutely in the right direction.

    I'll be happy to bring a bottle of bubbly to share while people are gathering and one of red for the meat-and-potatoes course, if he'll have me.... ;-)

    Oct 25, 2010 at 3:50 AM

  • I like serving chocovine wine after a great dinner, holiday time is best! Such a great rich chocolate flavor and so smooth, an after dinner delight!

    Oct 26, 2010 at 11:06 AM

  • Snooth User: Winelaver
    614671 10

    Another way to take the pressure off the food production is to have each couple bring one of the dishes that has been thought out for your parings. They can complete the dish just before service at the hosts home.
    You must Collaborate to accomplish a good flight of wines. Enjoy!

    Oct 29, 2010 at 1:44 PM

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