Choosing Wine for Your Wedding

Martha Stewart Weddings, Winter 2004

Most people associate weddings with Champagne; its sparkling bubbles are the customary choice for toasts. But wines -- both reds and whites -- are just as important to the menu and should be considered with care. Don't worry, though, if your knowledge of wines is limited; when it comes to choosing the right ones, it's really just a matter of personal taste.

"A good way to select wines for your wedding is to taste a variety for the best pairing with your menu," says Jim Kirsch, president and chief executive officer of Abigail Kirsch, a catering firm in New York City. Wine-store tastings and wine bars, with their extensive by-the-glass offerings, are great sampling grounds. You could also have a different type of wine every time you go out to eat at a restaurant, or pick up a new bottle every couple of weeks. Jot down your favorite brands and vintages in a notebook.

Look for at least one red wine and one white to serve at your celebration. Some of the most popular wines, such as oaky, buttery Chardonnay and fruity, full-bodied Merlot, aren't always the best companions for wedding fare: They can overwhelm the hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail hour, and they don't always fit well with lighter dishes. They also tend to have a higher alcohol content.

Two wines that go very well with many different types of foods and that can be served year-round are Sauvignon Blanc for a white and, among reds, Pinot Noir. Both of these are lighter in body and less fruity than Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. They're also excellent when served as aperitifs.

It is sensible to make your wine selections at the same time you are deciding on the menu. The wines you choose should bring out the best in the meal, and vice versa. Conventional wisdom says that whites go best with chicken and fish and reds with meats, but reds and whites are now accepted as complements for any food, so go ahead and experiment.

An experienced caterer can provide reliable food-and-wine-matching advice. Most will have a long list of possible choices to serve and will track down any wines you want that are not on it. But keep in mind, just because caterers can provide the total package doesn't mean that you should blindly entrust your wedding wine selections to them. You should taste all of their suggestions before settling on a particular wine.

You don't have to spend a fortune to serve terrific wines at your wedding. The wine world is enjoying a boom in quality these days, so there are plenty of first-rate, inexpensive ones to choose from. Premium bottles can be as low as $7, ranging to more than $30 a bottle.

Wine -- along with Champagne -- will likely represent about 15 percent of your overall reception budget. If you arrange for your caterer to provide the wine, it will typically be included as part of the bar bill. Expect to pay about twice retail on each bottle that's served. This is standard procedure for both restaurants and caterers; the increase covers service and helps defray food costs.

Couples who decide to serve wine they've bought themselves should anticipate a possible corkage fee of about $15 per bottle from the caterer; this fee covers opening and pouring. Still, buying your own wine can save you money: A $20 bottle with a caterer's markup will cost you $40, whereas your own $20 bottle with a $15 corkage fee will cost $35. Plus, most retailers offer a 10-percent discount for every case, or 12 bottles -- and that discount can increase with each additional case. Generally, the more expensive the bottle, the larger the savings when you buy it yourself and pay for corkage. If you plan to serve bottles priced below $15, it's more economical to use the caterer's list.

To determine the number of bottles to buy, a good rule of thumb is to allot anywhere from a half to three-quarters of a bottle per person, assuming that most guests will drink two glasses with dinner. If the wines will also be served with cocktails, double that amount; guests will likely enjoy a glass or two before sitting down to dine. For a small wedding of less than 70 people, expect to go through at least three cases. Remember, people generally consume more white wine than than they do red -- especially in the summer, when it's hot outside -- so consider buying an extra case or two of white.

Your wine choice can also provide an opportunity to further personalize your wedding. For instance, you might serve the wine that you had on your first date or the kind your parents drank on their wedding day. Depending on where you'll be holding your reception, you could choose a wine from a local vineyard, or pick one from a favorite vacation spot or your honeymoon destination. Or let your family tree inspire you -- serve wines that are produced in the region your ancestors hail from. If you like, you can include a short sentence on the menu explaining the significance of the wines.

Finding Deals on Wine
If you decide to buy your own rather than use the caterer's wine list, here are a few ways you can cut costs.

Buy in Bulk
Always purchase by the case. Almost all merchants offer a 10-percent discount per case and will usually increase that if you buy several at once.

Choose Big Bottles
You can buy good, inexpensive wines from France, Australia, and California in magnum-size bottles that hold twice the amount of a regular bottle. With these, your corkage fee will go that much further.

Befriend Your Merchant
Talk with your local wine store's employees every time you shop. Once you're a valued customer, your bargaining power -- and your discounts -- will increase.

Start Cellaring
Put some cases away now for the wedding. You don't need a cellar in your home: Many wine stores offer storage for a small fee.

Look for Sales
Sign up for newsletters and join mailing lists at both wine shops and websites. Then stockpile your chosen wines as the sales occur.

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