In our Ask the Sommelier series, we’re putting readers’ questions to the world’s top wine experts. For the latest instalment, Head Sommelier at The Pig at Bridge Place and winner of the IWSC Emerging Talent in Hospitality award, Luke Harbor helps advise on storage and service as well as curate the perfect wine list for a reader’s picnic.
“It’s my friend’s birthday coming up and a group of us want to take her for a surprise picnic to celebrate. I’d like to make it as special as possible, and as she’s really into wine – I’m wondering what the best approach is to serving and storing wine at a picnic? Ideally, we’d like to drink something summery, but I don’t want it getting too warm if the weather’s good. Any suggestions of the styles of wine I should look to buy would also be great to ensure her birthday is a big success.”
Jason from Norwich
Luke Harbor responds:
“A picnic is such a great opportunity to go big on the wine and keep the food simple. When putting a wine list together for a picnic, I would suggest figuring out the occasion first – who’s joining for your picnic, and how big are you going? In this case, with it being a celebration – and, I suppose, with people not having socialised for a while – it’s a really good opportunity to crack open some amazing bottles and just have some fun with it.
“If you’ve got a few bottles of wine, it’s probably best to take a cool bag with either ice or one of those gel packs inside – if you’re into your sports, you might already have one of those in the fridge or freezer for your recovery, but they’re also very effective when insulating a bottle of wine. Pre-cooling your wines is always useful. I would have the wine bottles ready in the fridge, and then take them out as close to the time that you’re leaving as possible. Even with reds, I’d be inclined to put them in the fridge if it’s a nice hot day – bring them down to white temperature, and then let them come up to temperature during the picnic.
“I’m not a huge fan of the plastic cup, so I would definitely opt for glass instead, if you can. Even if you have mismatched tumblers, a humble fizz in any glass can be a really nice experience – as long as it’s served at the right temperature. If you can invest in your own glassware, my go-to picnic wine glasses are Jancis Robinson’s “universal” wine glasses. They’re really elegant, but at the same time, I haven’t managed to break one yet, and I’m pretty clumsy with mine. As they’re “universal”, I find they work well with all styles, from sparkling to still and even sweet.
“For this particular picnic, It would be really nice to have a wine list that resonates with the English countryside. I think it’s a really good opportunity to embrace a bit of English wine culture.
“My go-to bubbles for a picnic would be something like Gusbourne Rosé or Blanc de Blanc. In terms of whites, I would go for a fresher style. If you’re a Sauvignon Blanc fan, Hush Heath based in Staplehurst in Kent makes a gorgeous Bacchus that has a touch of old barrel ageing to give it texture, but it’s all about the fruit, the aromatics, the zest and a kind of freshness. If you like something akin to a Chablis, there’s a producer called Simpsons that makes an unoaked style of Chardonnay in this lean, mineral-edged style. For a richer style of white, you could opt for a barrel-aged Chardonnay from a producer like Danbury Ridge in Essex, which will give you Burgundy credentials, but while still being sourced from on the doorstep.
A picnic can’t be a picnic unless you’ve got some rosé
“But a picnic can’t be a picnic unless you’ve got some rosé. At Castlewood in Devon, they’ve made their first vintage of rosé, bottled in magnums – it’s made with Pinot Noir and Bacchus. Many rosés are made in a pale, Provence-style – and I think sometimes they lack a bit of character. And that’s what I love about this unique rosé – the charm comes from it not being too perfect. It’s got some edges around it, but still manages to be elegant. Or try rosé from Oxney, an organic producer in East Sussex. It’s everything you look for in a classic Provence style. It still has substance, but is bone dry and zesty, with a lovely red-fruit core.
“If you really want to go on an English wine journey, you can also try some amazing red wines – they’re still far and few in the UK, but the ones that are coming to light are really beautiful. Try Hush Heath Winemaker’s Edition Suitcase Pinot Noir, or for a slightly chilled red I would select Biddenden’s Beaujolais-style Gamay.
“Mostly, just have fun with the wines. The wine comes second to the food when you have a dinner party, perhaps. But with picnics, your wine and conversation can be at the forefront. Oh, and always bring a bottle opener – you don’t want to be left trying to do the shoe trick or something…”