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The Order of Serving Wine


Most days there’s just one course and wine bottle on my dinner table. I prefer red wines, so that’s what I have except when I have fish, a Asian stir-fry or a pizza, then I open a dry white wine.

However when friends come for dinner and on celebratory occasions we have more courses and an excuse to open more bottles.

The standard mantra for the order of wine service is simple, and makes sense:-

  • White wine before red wine
  • Light wine before heavy wine
  • Dry wine before sweet wine


But it’s not written in stone, and there are exceptions. Maybe if you’re having a salmon starter you could accompany it with a slightly chilled Beaujolais or Pinot Noir and have a full-bodied oaked Chardonnay or Semillon with the main course. The fresh barely tannined red wines with the starter will be lighter than the main course white.

The golden rule is always to drink what you like, not what someone else recommends as the correct thing. I did spend a couple of months some years ago as an experiment by deliberately drinking the ‘wrong’ wines – white with steak, red with fish and so on, and quite frankly there were no disasters. Any wine is better than no one, in my opinion. Over time one comes to conclude one own preferences about what wines go with what meals. And I can’t see that any wine choice makes a worse match with any food than a cola or sweet iced-tea.

I like to offer a sparkling wine as an aperitif before dinner, and my choice is Champagne. That’s not as extravagant as it may seem because I live near to Champagne where I can buy inexpensively from small producers at their cellar door. Sparkling wines tend not to have too high alcohol which is good when it precedes other wines.

Such occasions are the rare times I open a bottle – or more usually a half-bottle – of very sweet wine. Dessert wines – or ‘stickies’ as they are known in Australia – are hugely enjoyable and tend to be keenly priced. Port, the fortified sweet wine from Portugal is the traditional choice, and very competitively priced with a excellent Late Bottled Vintage costing no more than an averagely good table wine. Alternatively, look for one of the many wines made from grapes of the Muscat family, deliciously sweet, tasting of grapes and low in alcohol.

Whether it is for a family get together, a wedding, or a formal banquet don’t worry too much about what is the correct order of serving. If in doubt stick to the three simple suggestions above. And enjoy!

Talk about wine on our forum.

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Peter F May. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Peter F May. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Peter F May for details.

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