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How To Uncork the Perfect Pairing

4 people toasting at a table
Simple tips for selecting the right wines for the holiday. MORE+ LESS-
glasses of wine with chocolate

Ahh, the pleasure of a meal accompanied by just the right glass of vino. Waiters and sommeliers make it look so easy, rattling off recommendations for every conceivable course. But cut to the poor soul in the beverage aisle, gazing at the perplexing array of countries, varieties, brands, and prices. It’s enough to make you dizzy (and you haven’t had a drop yet).

What’s a casual drinker to do? Choose a pretty label and call it a day? We think not.

Wine experts commit years to understanding the nuances of vintage and grape (lucky them). But that doesn’t mean amateurs can’t get wise, too. A little effort into selecting a wine to match your courses can make the meal. Here’s some blissfully simple guidance for getting over the intimidation and onto the fun part.

Red vs. White

We’ve all heard the rule of thumb: white wine with white meat and red with red meat. Good news—that advice is sound. Generally speaking, reds complement beef, lamb, and other strong flavors, while whites go better with the subtle tastes of poultry, fish, or seafood. That rules out half the wine shop. Here’s where to go from there …

Meet your match

Like wine, foods vary widely in intensity, from light to heavy to sweet to spicy. The trick is finding a wine to match the power of your dish. Learning a few wine varieties along the intensity spectrum is a great start. For light and delicate—a salad, say—go for a bright, white wine like a Pinot Gris or a Riesling. For earthier dishes like poultry or pork, try wines in the medium-body range: Chardonnay, Merlot, or Pinot Noir. And for that pungent, juicy steak? You can’t beat a robust red such as Syrah or Red Zinfandel.

Sauces matter, too. Veggies and rice with lemon is a lot less intense than vegetables in cream sauce. If your sauce imparts a strong flavor, up the ante from light to medium-bodied wine.

Study in contrasts

Figured out matching flavors? Now let’s mix things up. Just like your living room décor, a little contrast can make things more exciting. At the dinner table, that may mean balancing your dish with a wine of opposite character. Anything in a rich sauce, for example, benefits from an acidic wine like a Barbera. Hot and spicy curry can be mellowed by the sweetness of a Riesling or a White Zinfandel.

As you cook, drink as well

In navigating your wine/dine choices, look no further than how your meal is cooked. Are you poaching or steaming? Those techniques yield delicate flavors (think white, light, and bright like a Pinot Gris or a Grüner Veltliner). Grilling and braising yield strong tastes (go for big and bold, such as Syrah). Sautéing and baking create an intensity somewhere in between (find a happy medium, like Grenache or Sauvignon Blanc).

Rhyme and region

Here’s a tasty insight: cuisine and wine evolved together. So foods from one country or region tend to pair well with wines from the same neck of the woods. Which is why Chianti tastes so good with pasta. Or why champagne sits well with a French brie. This wisdom works stateside, too. A California Chardonnay tastes amazing with earthy farm flavors like lamb or chevre.

And for dessert…

If your first pairing was a hit, why not change course for the last course? Sweet wines like Gewürztraminers, Rieslings, Sherries, Muscats, and Ports are divine with something chocolaty, or stand on their own as dessert. Another nice surprise is a sparkling wine such as Champagne, Prosecco, or Cava—an effervescent finale to any feast.

License to experiment

Of course, pairing food and wine is not an exact science. But in wine as in life, persistence pays off. Play around with different combos. Buy two bottles for one meal and discover which you like better. And if you pour a Viognier that positively clashes with your salmon bisque? We call that a delicious lesson learned.