Pairing wine with food can be a daunting experience — if you want it to be. Choreographing a dinner of sea bass or a strip steak can take a lot of effort when to many guests the wine pairing really doesn’t matter. We can’t tell you the times we have pondered endlessly about whether to open an old Bordeaux or an earthy Rhone wine when it didn’t matter — guests were solely focused on the food and conversation.
That being said, a wine can either enhance a dish or overwhelm it. So, you want to give it enough thought that doesn’t tax the brain but gives a meal the splash you want.
If you have a great wine you want to share, make it the centerpiece. Build your meal around the wine. For instance, if you have an aged white burgundy, serve a simple fish dish that will let the wine’s delicate and fleeting features stand out.
Abandon the convention that you should serve white wine with fish and red wine with meat. However logical, the rule of thumb is not absolute and it fails to take into account the preparation or sauce. Pork, for instance, is relatively neutral in flavor. Add a tart cilantro sauce and you have a wine challenge. Spicy sauces call for Gewurztraminer while something more herbal would be better complemented by sauvignon blanc. Add a tomato-based sauce and you can shift to a light red, such as pinot noir or syrah.
Fish follows a similar course. A rich, buttery sauce calls for a lush, extracted chardonnay; a citrus or herbal sauce is better matched by sauvignon blanc. Pinot noir does well with a simply prepared salmon or tuna steak.
The weight of the wine and its texture is totally ignored by most chefs. A Barolo or cabernet sauvignon are heavy wines because of their dense fruit, tannins and alcohol levels. A rich, buttery chardonnay has a smooth, rich texture that can overwhelm a tart, simple sauce. It is logical, then, not to serve these wines with delicate dishes. Clobber a Dover sole with a complex, oaky chardonnay and your guests won’t taste the effort you put into your sauce.
Other than rehearsing your dinner, how do know if a wine will be a good match? Think regions. Wines from cooler, old-world regions tend to be lighter, more acidic and less alcoholic. Wines from new world regions – Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. — are bolder with ripe fruit and big alcohol. These are the wines that require caution. Sure, that Oregon pinot noir may have cost you $80, but it’s going to kill the salmon. On the other hand, a simple Burgundy made from pinot noir would be perfect.
Chardonnay is just as easy to predict. An unoaked, minerally chardonnay from Chablis is a safe match to delicate fish dishes; serve an oaky, lush chardonnay from Napa Valley or Australia and you are facing a likely disaster.
You don’t need to know the flavor profile of every wine. Just know the region and you will reduce your risk.
The crowd also matters. We’ve been disappointed when guests pound down glasses of expensive pinot noir and never stop to think about it or comment. What wine you serve and how much you pay for wine should take into consideration the knowledge and appreciation of your guests.
Wine matters more if you are planning a formal, sit-down dinner with eager guests who are looking forward to a gastronomical feast. However, if your care-free crowd is coming over for a backyard barbecue of ribs and burgers, why spend a lot of money on concentrated wines? Inexpensive wines such as zinfandel and syrah are basic, unadorned and fruity matches unlikely to draw objections.
Wine sales staff are regularly asked for a wine recommendation for a particular dinner. It shows that chefs don’t want to be embarrassed by serving the wrong wine with a dinner they are carefully planning. But understand that there is no single choice, but a myriad of wines that will do just fine. All you need is to be in the ballpark. Abandon those old rules, use your intuition and buy what makes sense.
Josh Cellars Reserve Firefighters Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi 2019 ($20). $1 from every bottle of this wine sold will benefit firefighting charities across the country. This is a big bold bruiser of a wine tailored for bold flavored dishes featuring red meat. Very ripe berry fruits dominate with a hint of licorice. Soft tannins allow for pleasant drinking now. Serve slightly chilled in warm weather months.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2016 ($75). One of the marquee wines of Banfi, this brunello is made entirely of sangiovese grapes and aged for a minimum of four years, including two years in oak barrels. Very hedonistic with floral and licorice aromas, dark and red berry flavors with a hint of spice.
Inman Endless Crush OGV Roséof Pinot Noir 2020 ($38). It’s no wonder this rosé quickly sells out. The wild strawberry and watermelon notes jump from the glass to enliven the palate. It remains a perennial favorite of ours.