Wedding Wines

One less decision to make for the Big Day.

June in the South means three things: heat, humidity, and weddings galore. You've got one month to go (gulp) if you're the blushing bride, so here's my gift to you: advice on choosing the reception libations. No thank-you card necessary! I do this for a living, folks.

Far from today's romance-infused experience, weddings, up through the Middle Ages, were about politics and survival. Families united in economics and power, love be damned. But in this modern age amorous couples, after the service and the raucous party, fend for themselves after exchanging vows. Not too long ago, I entered into this social and legal rite, binding myself to a man for, hopefully, life. Organizing the wedding ritual, we rejected many silly traditions like the embarrassing garter toss and deflected numerous parental supplications, but to be honest, the hardest thing wasn't juggling the guest list or the family — it was choosing the wines. Curious folk inquired what this wine critic served at her own wedding and, naturally, the pressure to "deliver" was quite palpable. Then that minor issue of budget hung in the air. I was, ahem, an "older" bride, so my parents didn't exactly shell out like I'm a 22-year-old blushing virgin. Satisfying the wallet and the palate was a soul search. Here, I share my findings.

The bubbly at anyone's wedding is perhaps the most important decision. In celebration — during toast after toast — people swill it like water all night; serving a better one helps avoid hangovers. Caterers and halls normally offer limited (and brutally average) wine selections, so inquire about outside purchasing. Buying in bulk without a huge caterer markup offers a significant cost savings. Although you might incur a small to offensive "corkage fee," weigh the cost difference as well as the enjoyment factor. Don't complain about this — corkage fees cover the overhead costs a caterer incurs for the wine service. But they are, however, highly negotiable.

Choosing the wine is where the fun begins. If you're hosting a sit-down dinner, it's pretty simple. Two wines: one white, one red. To better meld with the food, choose a lighter, more acidic sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio over chardonnay and stay away from cabernet sauvignon unless your menu features robust dishes. For stand-up receptions, opt for a variety that fits both lightweight Aunt Mae and alcoholic Uncle John, with at least two reds and two whites that don't require food to ease the acidity or tannins. Good white choices: Australian or California chardonnay, dry yet fruity riesling, or sauvignon blanc. Reds: Australian shiraz, American merlot, Oregon pinot noir, or a juicy, friendly California blend (would a wine like Ménage à Trois offend your guest list?).

For the wedding cake toast — if funds allow two different bubblies — serve a sweeter sparkling wine rather than a pungent brut. The dessert's sweetness will transform a dry brut into sawdust mighty quick. Look for sparklers that say "Extra Dry" or "Demi Sec" on the label. Suggestions: Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée, Moet et Chandon White Star, or a more affordable Italian Moscato d'Asti.

When determining how much to buy, remember there are about five glasses in each wine bottle and around six in a sparkling. With dinner, count on one glass of wine per person, per hour (but this certainly depends on the crowd's party-heartiness). During a reception, calculate two glasses if it's wine and beer only, one less if you're serving other alcoholic beverages. However, these estimates depend on how much activity you have going on — bored people will probably drink more to dull the pain. And you really don't want to have that wedding. M

Recommended Wines

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (Italy) From an outstanding Italian producer, it's tough to find a better value than this one. It has vibrant citrus and pear, with some almond cookie worked in there.

$12. e e e e

Dry Creek Vineyards 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (California) Also labeled Fume Blanc, I could drink this smooth, melon and soft-citrus sipper all day long. And have. Mouth-filling gulps of kiwi fruit, lime, and nectarine flow into a long-lasting, mellow finish. Good value. $14. e e e e 1/2

Mondavi 2006 Private Selection Meritage (California) A soft, low tannin cabernet sauvignon blend oozing blackberry, black cherry, sweet vanilla, bittersweet chocolate, and earthy tobacco. Complex enough to please the snobs and easy drinking enough for the newbies.

$11. e e e e

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