Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pairing Wine - The Basics

Let's be honest, most folks really struggle with how to choose a wine to go with their meal. You can tell because when they peruse the wine list, they just stare it over aimlessly. It might as well be written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. If they decide to experiment, the decision is given the proverbial olé with an eeny-meeny-miny-mo type approach. For the rest, they just pick something they've had before. Result - usually a total whiff. Forget any hope of pairing, just pray the wine is something you can enjoy.

That is a little exaggerated, but I bet it sounds familiar to most. I freely admit - that was my experience before I wised up and realized I didn't have to be a pro sommelier to make sense of a wine list. While you'll never know every vintner, some simple rules of thumb can help make sense of even the most daunting wine list and narrow down the search to a point where you can defer to the likely well acquainted server with confidence and direction. From there, you will usually end up with a nearly perfect compliment to your meal. So, here is a very high level guide based on my experience:

Step 1 - decide on your entree or meal. In pairing, you must choose the wine based on the food or choose the food based on the wine. It usually makes sense to go with the first approach.

Step 2 - assess the flavor profile of your entree or meal selection. Is it something sweet, spicy, rich, light, red meat, white meat, moderate, tomato based, creamy, etc.

Step 3 - don't sell out. Keep in mind you'll never appreciate the experience of pairing wine with a meal if you get firmly locked into one genre. Sure, you need to think of your personal taste preference in wine - something that leans more on the sweet or dry side, something fruity and light or bold and full bodied. But don't order Pinot Noir at every meal just because you think it's a safe call. It may be a totally inadept pairing - a wine you might otherwise really enjoy will seem average.

Step 4 - choose the wine. Keep the following in mind and you'll be on the right track: residually sweet white wines or blushes like White Zinfandel, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer pair well with spicy foods, fruits, or dessert. Lighter dishes like shell fish, white fish, poultry, cream sauces, and mild cheeses with white wines with a crisp or buttery flavor like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or Viognier. Light bodied reds like Pinot Noir and Zinfandel pair well with pork, veal, tuna, salmon and other moderately flavored dishes. Beef, lamb, game, duck, tomato based pastas, or braised meats pair best with fuller bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz), Sangiovese, Barbera, or Tempranillo.

Step 5 - suck it up. If in doubt, just ask your server for help. You'll never learn unless you ask questions.

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