EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m cleaning up my computer and finding a couple Magazine pieces I’ve written in past year an not posted here. In retirement, I work at a small boutique wine shop. The most frequently asked question is about food and wine pairings. Here’s my take written late in 2020 with a few edits.
Red or White? It’s the oldest question in fine dining and wine world when thinking about wine with a meal. The right answer is there is no answer – eat and drink what you like and don’t let anyone tell you differently. But there are plenty of people willing to make suggestions.
There is a humorous cartoon that pops up on social media occasionally addressing that choice. A caveman and cave woman are standing in a stone house. The caveman says, “Remember if it eats us. we drink red; if we eat it, it’s white.”
Having worked part time in retail wine sales for more than 3.5 years in retirement, customers seeking a good wine-food pairing are an everyday occurrence.
The best approach is to start with the basics and you’ll find delight. But then try new things and then try a few things that make no sense at all.
For years wine drinkers and restaurants have lived with the red meat/red wine and chicken/fish with white wine mantra. It works and it works well. Char a ribeye or strip steak and pop open a big Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and you’ll understand how good pairings can be. If you enjoy roasted chicken, you’ll delight in one of California’s big buttery Chardonnays or a leaner and crisp Chablis or White Burgundy from France.
But everyone wants tips and recommendations, so here are a few:
Barbeque or heavily spiced foods: Malbec, Shiraz, or French Cotes-du-Rhone wines will work well. Something different: Try a semi-sweet Riesling or Gewurtztraminer.
Tangy foods: Try Albarino, Spanish Verdejo, or a good Sauvignon blanc. New Zealand Sauv Blanc is acidic with bold citrus grapefruit flavors, California Sauv blanc is a more restrained wine with great balance, while French Sancerre is an elegant and soft version of Sauv Blanc. Something different: Try an Italian Vermentino or Garnaccia.
Salmon: One of the best traditional pairings is Pinot Noir or a Sauv Blanc. Try those other whites mentioned above for a change. Something different: Pick up a lighter red like a Spanish or Italian Barbaresco.
White Fish: The whites already mentioned will work with most white fish. If you have a firm white fish like Halibut, try something different like a Mourvedre or Grenache.
Pork Chops, roast or shoulder: Pork is one of the most flexible proteins in our diet. That also makes pork a perfect meat for wine pairing experimentation. Try reds and white with lower acidity and a lighter mouth feel. Something different: Get bold and choose a California Zinfandel to create a real contrast.
Hamburger: Lighter red wines like Beaujolais Cru or a Spanish Rioja.
Pizza, chili, simple pasta: Everyone drinks Chianti and it works great. But try the previously mentioned Italian Barbaresco or Barbera.
Salads and desserts: A good catch-all answer for a food group is bubbles. Traditional champagne is dry and refreshing but on the pricey side. Don’t overlook Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and US made sparkling wines. Something different: A favorite is French Cremant. Cremant is made by the same process as Champagne but, per French law, cannot be called Champagne. Alsace, Burgundy, Loire Valley, and the Languedoc produce Cremant wines. There are great ones for around $20.
Final tip is an “oh-wow” experience. Get some nice salty popcorn and real French Champagne and enjoy.