A reader recently asked if I chose the wine first or the food.
As with most things in our lives, there is no particular pattern that fits every situation. Some days, I have a hankering for a particular wine, and the food can be anything. Other times, we plan to make a particular dish and we’ll pick the wine accordingly.
Then there are times when we simply have a series unconnected dishes along with whatever wine is left from the night before.
Since there are no hard/fast rules to wine/food pairings, we try to match flavors as best we can, and having a large wine cellar is truly helpful in that regard.
But even if you were to buy your wine as needed, on a day-to-day basis, there are some basic things to keep in mind.
Pasta and other dishes with tomato sauces: These work best with red wines that are tart enough to compete with the acidity from the tomatoes. We prefer Chianti, barbera, and even zinfandel when we can find one with moderate alcohol. (Higher-alcohol wines tend to leave a slightly sweet aftertaste, which occasionally does not work well with tomato sauces.)
Canapes, cheese and crackers, dips, and other light hors d’oeuvres: All dry sparkling wines (Brut) are festive and tasty with such patio fare, but there are a virtual infinity of choices here. With assertive cheeses, you could try New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Austrian gruner veltliner, dry chenin blanc, or even a white wine from the Rhône Valley.
Asian foods such as spicy Thai, Indian curries, and other spicy Far East dishes: medium-dry rieslings, gewurztraminer and pinot grigio will help tame the heat. The spicier the food, the sweeter the wine can be.
Cantonese cuisine: dry riesling, pinot gris, and chenin blanc.
Grilled steaks: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and hefty zinfandels work best here, and if the meat is extremely well-seasoned with pepper, red wines from cold climates, with their slightly peppery aromatics, can be a winner.
Lamb: Young zinfandels usually have enough fruit to compete with the slight gaminess of the dish.
Rare roast beef, salmon, steelhead, and grilled tuna: pinot noir and other lighter red wines such as Côtes du Rhône, Cru Beaujolais, and grenache. Dry rosé also works nicely here, with the best from Coteaux D’aix-en-Provence .
Beef stew, hamburgers, and other assertive meat dishes: Any hearty red wine, including petite sirah and strongly flavored blends that feature syrah as a major component.
Delicate seafood dishes, including oysters and other shellfish: crisp dry white wines such as Loire Valley sauvignon blanc, muscadet, vermentino, dry riesling, and pinot blanc.
Seafood with cream sauces and/or lemon butter, as well as bisques: rich and unctuous chardonnays.
There are literally dozens of exceptions to these suggestions, many related to how each wine or each dish was produced. For instance, some wine makers suggest that a particular wine is dry, but it may still have more sugar than is ideal with food.
Such little label fibs can be truly annoying. And these days, with the development of sweet red wines that do not say anything on their labels about them being sweet, consumers can be scammed.
If you’re not sure whether a red wine is dry, ask the merchant. Which is one reason to shop in fine wine stores. Such places have knowledgeable clerks. Most discounters do not.
You may find better prices at discounters, but you may not be able to get an accurate answer about the style of wine you’re thinking of buying.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles ($30): This Rhône Valley grape is rarely made into a varietal wine, and here it is more classic with a slightly minerally aroma with a hint of spice. The mid-palate is succulent and the finish is crisp.