The message landed in my inbox last week with one of those red exclamation marks - "Importance: high" - in the iconography of my e-mail program. It was from Ben Sykes, a vice-president at a Toronto real-estate brokerage.
He was writing to announce he's getting married this weekend. Besides showing up on time, his main duty as groom, he told me, was to choose wines for the reception.
"Beppi, is there a number I can try you at?" he wrote. "Jamie Kennedy is doing our food and I want to ensure we pair it with a good red and white. However, we don't want to spend more than $17 per bottle."
I called. Mr. Sykes exhaled with relief. Then, suddenly, I felt my own anxiety mount as the burden of a loyal reader's first test as a married man was transferred to yours truly.
Picking wines for a wedding is no easy feat. Pleasing one person whose preferences you may know is tough enough. Impressing a crowd whose predilections may be all over the map is next to impossible.
Some people will love the fruit-forward flavour of Australian shiraz, while others may find it as loud and jarring as a bridesmaid's dress. Some are partial to austere red Bordeaux, while others can find the style too tight, like a corset after too much cake.
Yet I was heartened by Mr. Sykes's parameters.
Usually, my unofficial role as wedding planner comes with a more challenging price restriction; keep it under $10 per bottle. Seventeen opens up the field considerably. Another factor that bolstered my confidence was the menu. I'm familiar with the culinary mastery of Toronto toque Jamie Kennedy. A missionary for organic, local ingredients and unfussy preparations, he specializes in pure, clean flavours. That style offers considerable latitude where wine is concerned. Game on.
For anyone in Ben's happy predicament, this would be my cardinal rule for wine-and-food marriages: Think Europe. Don't get me wrong, I love Australian shirazes and California cabernets, but not so much for weddings. For one thing, European wines generally contain more food-friendly acidity.
For another, they tend to contain less alcohol, and you know what that means - fewer collisions on the dance floor and less likelihood of interminable speeches from pie-eyed groomsmen exhuming details about old girlfriends and the stag party.
Here are the selections I made in a hurry.
For whites I chose: Louis Jadot Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay from Burgundy ($14.20); Grand Gaillard Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from Bordeaux ($13); and Anselmi San Vincenzo from northern Italy ($14.95). The chardonnay in particular is a big bargain and an elegant accompaniment for the menu's fish option of wild salmon with mushroom sauce.
For the reds, I suggested: Château Pey La Tour 2008 from Bordeaux ($13.95 in Ontario); Ortas Tradition Rasteau from the Rhone Valley 2008 ($15); and François Lurton Les Hauts de Janeil Syrah-Grenache 2008 from southern France's Languedoc region ($12.95). These are all terrific value propositions, full of fruit flavour yet earthy and herbal in that French way. They also should pair nicely with Mr. Kennedy's beef-rib-eye main course, which will be served with a herbed jus.
Because Mr. Sykes told me he intended to sample the wines before settling on two, I thought I'd add an easy-to-find New World red option should the fruit-forward character appeal. My only caveat about Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia ($16.95) is that it contains 13.8 per cent alcohol, a recipe for dance-floor mayhem.
I wish Mr. Sykes and his bride well.
Another urgent solicitation arrived recently. "I have a godson turning 1 year old next week," wrote Ryan Paliga of Ontario. "I would like to buy a bottle of wine that he could enjoy with his father on his 18th/19th birthday. My budget is under $200. Any suggestions?"
Mr. Paliga is not only a generous and loving godfather, but clearly wise in the ways of wine. It's an insufficiently appreciated truth that inexpensive wines generally do not improve with age. Most are crafted to be consumed within one to two years after bottling. There are exceptions, such as the Penfolds wine above, which may improve for a decade or more. But if you seek a beverage that will result in a wine epiphany 18 years hence, it helps to spend - pardon the expression - like there's no tomorrow.
A budget of up to $200 is not unreasonable, frankly. My big reservation as a consultant here is that even expensive wines can taste ho-hum after 18 years. They're not like those infomercial knife sets. They don't come with lifetime guarantees. And the selection of great labels can be piddling to non-existent at many stores.
So, some general guidelines might be of help to Mr. Paliga.
Stick with great recent harvests from classic European regions, such as 2005 from the Rhone Valley, 2005 for red Bordeaux and 2004 for Barolos from Italy. That said, great producers often craft cellar-worthy wines even from difficult growing seasons; you simply have to know who they are.
Vintage Port, the highest designation for Portugal's sweet fortified wine, is another good bet. The 2003 vintage, examples of which are still on shelves, was superb. It should deliver rewards in 18 years and will likely evolve nicely for twice that long if the bottle is stored in a consistently cool, humid cellar.
And many expensive wines from California and Australia can go the distance, depending on the producer and the district. This past weekend I uncorked a 1992 Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from my cellar. The iconic red, purchased in person at the Napa Valley winery when it was released, was gorgeous, especially with a T-bone steak and fine company in my garden. Yet it still possessed a tannic toughness, suggesting it could have blossomed further with five more years. Today's price for that wine: $140.
Some selections from current inventory in Ontario:
The Rhone: Domain du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 ($72.95); E. Guigal Château d'Ampuis Côte-Rôtie 2005 ($149), and Domaine de la Solitude Cuvée Barberini Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2004 ($75).
Bordeaux: Château Léoville Barton ($195, just two bottles at the Huntsville store at press time, alas); Château Montrose 2005 ($197), and Château Figeac 2005 ($186).
Barolo: Bruno Giacosa Falletto Barolo 2005 ($199).
Port: Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2003 ($94.20).
Wish I'd had a godfather like Mr. Paliga.