Each month, I get invited to at least one or two dinners featuring food courses paired with select wines. If you’ve ever been to such a dinner, you may wonder how the wines were chosen—which principles are followed when selecting a wine for, say, steak or salmon. When considering wines to pair with specific foods, I believe that more important than worrying about red-versus-white is to identify the key ingredients in a particular dish and try to find wines, red or white, to complement those ingredients.
With dishes that aren’t very complicated—steak with a simple au jus, or roasted chicken, for example—you’re pretty safe focusing on the main ingredient when selecting wine to match. But with more elaborate menu items, one needs to pay attention to the various ingredients that go into a dish and look for the strongest flavors, the ones that are at the forefront of the dish.
For example, a simple sauteed chicken breast with herbs would probably call for a fairly straightforward white wine or a young, fruity red like Beaujolais. But add a raspberry-port reduction sauce to the chicken and that becomes the key flavor for choosing a matching wine. The chicken is neutral. Generally, simply prepared veal, chicken and pork dishes go well with white wines. But take the case of veal cooked with a rich and peppery mushroom-Madeira reduction: In this instance, the veal has a black-pepper zip to it, and something like Guigal Côte Rôtie, with its white-pepper notes, is just about perfect with the veal dish—even though veal is typically a “white wine food.”
A few general principles will help you to increase your chances of finding wines that work well with a variety of different foods. Acidic wines like Sancerre, dry Riesling or Chablis, for example, pair very nicely with acidic or salty foods. Ceviche, a vinegary salad and grilled chicken with lime juice are all acidic dishes that would go well with those wines. And so would salty, smoked and cured meats, or tart cheeses such as goat cheese. In these examples, like flavors are complementary to each other. So, look to Chenin Blanc or Riesling to drink with salty ham. But if you smother the ham with pineapple (which becomes a key flavor element), then choose a tropical, oaky California Chardonnay, or a wine like Caymus Conundrum with its tropical notes. Sweet, rich, buttery seafood like lobster or crab is very well-suited to a rich California Chardonnay, which also typically has some sweetness and buttery flavors.
Opposites also often attract in the wine world. Although it’s not exactly chic dining, there’s no better wine pairing I know of than popcorn and Champagne. Sparkling wines tend to be sweet—but not sweet enough to pair with most desserts—and they beautifully balance out the saltiness of popcorn or Parmesan cheese. Finding contrasting food and wine pairings can be a little tricky, but it’s fun to experiment. An oily, rich-tasting fish like mackerel, for example, actually works very nicely with a lean, tart white Bordeaux. But generally, you can throw out the old rule of “white wine with fish.” Depending on the type of fish and its sauce, either red or white might be appropriate. A very tasty match for salmon is Pinot Noir. But if you smother it in a cream sauce, then you’ll want to turn to something like a good French white Burgundy, since the sauce takes center stage.
I recommend experimenting and having fun with food and wine pairings. There are very few rights or wrongs. After all, with good food and good wine, how far wrong could you go?