Wedding Details: A Time to Toast

Wedding reception wines used to be as predictable as the menus. Chardonnay always accompanied salmon, cabernet sauvignon was a given for filet mignon or prime rib, and the toast was made with bargain-basement bubbly.

Now pinot grigio, Orvieto and sauvignon blanc are gaining ground as white wines for the feast. Shiraz, Rhône reds, merlot and chianti all are competing with cabernet. At the toast, fewer guests are abandoning their glasses after one sip, thanks to well-made sparkling wines from California, Italy and Spain.

“I think people are much more wine-savvy than they used to be, just as they’re more food-savvy,” says Max Hansen, co-owner of Max & Me Catering in Gardenville, whose staff decanted Bordeaux from the bride’s birth year, brought from her father’s wine cellar, at one memorable wedding. “We love it when people have a love for wine. It makes the food pairing much more exciting.”

“The absolute hottest thing right now is pinot grigio. I never thought chardonnays would be ‘out,’” says Lee Miller, co-owner of Chaddsford Winery, a popular spot for holding rehearsal dinners in Chadds Ford.

When someone asks Charlie Beatty to recommend a red wine for a wedding dinner, the general manager and wine buyer at Canal’s Bottlestop in Marlton usually suggests an Australian shiraz.

“Merlots are soft, dry, fruity, one-sided wines,” says Beatty. “Shiraz is fruit-forward, with some spice—which gives it a little more dimension for a party.” Beatty also likes rosé wines from southern France as an alternative to white zinfandel, and chenin blanc as an alternative to chardonnay.

Hotels, country clubs and restaurants typically provide house wines with a reception package, and it’s almost always possible to upgrade to better bottles from their wine lists. Independent caterers may allow clients to buy wine, beer and spirits for the reception wherever they choose, and deliver it to the site (which may incur an additional fee from the reception site). This widens the possibilities for wine choices, and can save a considerable amount of money for a wedding with a long guest list.

Many couples fax their reception menus to Moore Brothers Wine Company, whose locations in Penn-sauken and Wilmington specialize in small-production wines from France, Italy, Germany and the United States. Brian Healy, sommelier in the Pennsauken store, says those customers are looking for wines that are inexpensive, that complement the food, and that have broad mainstream appeal.

Often, Healy proposes chardonnays from France’s Mâcon region and Rhône reds because “they have a thread of flavor that people recognize.” The Mâcon chardonnays are less oaky and more elegant than their American counterparts, he says, while the Rhône reds “emulate the red fruit flavors that people are used to when they’re drinking merlot from this country.” These wines also are affordable: At Moore Brothers, Domaine des Valanges Mâcon-Davaye, a popular choice for weddings, sells for $13 per bottle, while the Domaine Deurre Cuvée Saint Maurice costs $11.50 per bottle.

Unusual menus give Healy the green light for more playful pairings. For a wedding dinner that emphasized Asian flavors, he assembled an array of Rieslings. For a banquet that featured sweet and spicy Indian foods, the wine lineup included Rieslings, rosé wines, light-bodied reds and prosecco, a dry Italian sparkling wine that has become a hot alternative to more costly French Champagne. At Moore Brothers, the Bele Casel brand of prosecco di Valdobbiadene sells for $14 per bottle. Canal’s carries five brands of prosecco, ranging in price from just under $9 up to $14 per bottle.

When Max & Me clients want to go beyond chardonnay and cabernet, Hansen might pair prosecco with hors d’oeuvres and smoked salmon, pinot grigio with fish entrees, merlot with lamb, and chianti or zinfandel with beef. About 90 percent of his clients spend between $10-$14 per bottle for wedding wine. But he still gets plenty of requests for chardonnay, and also pours a great deal of Yellow Tail, a slightly sweet, value-priced Australian chardonnay with a leaping wallaby on the label that has taken the United States by storm. “It’s not my favorite, but it’s a great bang for the buck,” Hansen says.

Yellow Tail shiraz is also in demand: Beatty sells 50 cases a week. At Canal’s, standard 750ml bottles of Yellow Tail chardonnay and shiraz sell for just $5.95, while 1.5l bottles sell for $10.99. Beatty personally prefers Piping Shrike shiraz, which sells for $12.99 per bottle, or $10.99 with a case discount. (Twelve 750ml bottles, or between six and eight 1.5l bottles, usually come in a case.)

Many wedding wine shoppers, says Beatty, avoid top-selling brands, and it has nothing to do with taste. “Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, everyone knows. It’s in our store for $9.19,” says Beatty. “But a lot of people won’t buy K-J for awedding, because they know that -people will say, ‘I know what they paid for that wine.’”

“Value is what everybody is after today,” says Donna Quinn, assistant food and beverage director at the Sofitel Hotel Philadelphia, where the ballroom can accommodate 225 to 300 people for a sit-down dinner. “They’re already spending a fortune on their wedding. They want quality value wine.”

Most wedding groups at the Sofitel choose the house wines: a chardonnay, merlot and cabernet made for Sofitel by The Hogue Cellars of Washington state, bottled under the Washington Vineyards label, and priced at $30-$40 a bottle. Because more couples request that sparkling wines be available at the cocktail hour and throughout the evening, Quinn offers the sparkling wine Chevalier, a French label made in the traditional Champagne method that the Sofitel offers for about $35 a bottle.

Whether the sparkling wine is extravagant Louis Roederer Cristal, or its $16.99 American equivalent, nonvintage Roederer Estate Brut, the experts implore couples to insist that it be poured just before consumption, or it will taste flat.

“Pour it cold,” says Miller. When her son, Eric, was married under the gazebo on the Chaddsford Winery property, ushers pushing bright-red wheelbarrows filled with ice and champagne bottles came down the aisle after the exchange of vows and popped the corks for a toast while guests were still in their seats.

Among his clientele, Hansen is seeing guests join in the toast with whatever beverage they have in hand at the time, not necessarily something sparkling. At his own 2003 wedding, many guests’ beverage of choice was keg-drawn Pilsner Urquell, a beer from the Czech Republic.

How much wine will you need? That depends on whether the reception will have spirits and beer in addition to wine, whether those guests are wine-
oriented, and the length of the party. Healy says four to four and a half cases of wine—a mix of sparkling, white and red—should suffice for 100 people at a reception. Some merchants, such as Canal’s, allow customers to return unopened bottles for a refund.

Hansen has a few additional tips: Instruct the caterer to open wine only as needed—rather than opening every bottle when the party starts—and to have servers pour, instead of leaving bottles on the table. That keeps sparkling and white wines cold, and ensures that you’ll pay only for what is consumed. Also, make sure servers don’t overfill wine glasses, which can drive up the bill (and keep the wine from aerating properly).

Half-bottles of wine make fun favors, particularly if the bottles have custom labels. Miller says some couples order custom-label bottles for all their wedding wine. Chaddsford makes custom labels available for five of its wines: chardonnay, cabernet, sunset blush, and proprietor’s reserve white and red, at a cost ranging from $6 each for the lowest-priced half-bottle to $18 for a full-size bottle of cabernet. Labels can be designed to match the wedding colors, and to include a photo and a “thanks for joining us” message to guests.

But if you’ve taken the time to select a wine that reflects your celebration, the best memories will be inside the bottle.