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Q: Choosing the Right Wine in a Restaurant

by David on July 31, 2009

Question from Jonathan: I had a question about wines in general and just looking for some guidance. I am planning a nice dinner for me and my girlfriend and I  have placed reservations at this really nice restaurant where I live. The restaurant has an extensive wine list however I really don’t know much about what wine would be good to go with a dinner such as red meat or seafood. Since I am new to wine and really wanted to expand my knowledge I am wondering type of wine would be appropriate? I am just looking for some guidance so I can make the right decision. Thank you

Reply: Hi, Jonathan! Thanks for writing! Sounds like a very special occasion!

Please don’t worry about making a “wrong” decision. Most wines and foods taste good together. There’s a natural affinity and the wine is only meant to make the meal more enjoyable. Plus, “best pairing” is subjective – we won’t all agree.

However, there are some general guidelines that seem to work well for a lot of us.

When it comes to steak and most fish, the traditional advice works pretty well – I’d say most of the time a full-bodied red like Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah or Zinfandel are great choices for a steak. Most often fish and shellfish taste best with a white. A somewhat tart white, like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or sparkling wine is a natural choice. Don’t you usually squeeze lemon juice on your seafood? It’s the same concept.

But, the most important thing to do is order a wine you like. If I suggest that you have red wine with your steak, it’s not good advice if you don’t like red wine. If you prefer white wine, you should order it and enjoy it.

Generally speaking, bold flavors call for bold (which usually means red) wine. Subtle flavors call for subtle (usually white) wine. The preparation is extremely influential. A simple sauté in butter doesn’t add nearly the flavor that grilling does. I usually prefer red wine with anything that’s grilled, and that can include a piece of fish. If the food is sauced, are the flavors in the sauce strong or subtle?

You can also think in terms of complement or contrast. If you have a rich, creamy pasta dish and pair it with a rich, buttery Chardonnay, you’ve made a complementary pairing. Some would love it and others would say it’s too much richness. Those people would probably prefer a tart Sauvignon Blanc with the cream sauce to create a contrasting pairing. Either one can be terrific.

Contrast usually works best for hot, spicy food. If you have hot Thai or Indian cuisine, fruity wine that’s low in alcohol and maybe even a little sweet makes a very refreshing contrast. Think Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Chenin Blanc or even good ol’ White Zinfandel. Sparkling wine also works well. Most boldly flavored red wine is also relatively high in alcohol and, combined with the spicy food, can turn you into a fire-breathing dragon!

If you’re confident your server won’t just point you to the priciest wine on the list, he/she will probably be flattered if you ask for advice. “What are some of your favorite wine matches for this dish?” You shouldn’t worry about not seeming to “know it all”. No one does – there’s too much to know.

So, in a nutshell:

1. Bold food flavors (except for hot and spicy), full-bodied wineÂ

2. Subtle flavors, subtle wine

3. Complementary pairing (buttery sauce with buttery Chardonnay)

4. Contrasting pairing (buttery sauce with crisp, tart Sauvignon Blanc)

5. Careful with hot foods! Usually light, fruity wines taste best

6. Dessert: The wine should be at least as sweet as the dessert or it will taste sour

You might get a kick out of a fellow blogger’s thoughts on food and wine pairing. I don’t entirely agree with him  –  if you’re putting thought into your choice of foods, then why not put a little thought into your wine choice?  But, it’s a fun read, and I like the spirit of the thing – just enjoy and don’t worry!

We have a little more information on our website.

I hope this helps and that you and your girlfriend have a wonderful evening! Thanks, again, for writing! Cheers! Nancy

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