Which Wine? The Choice is Yours

There has been far too much talk regarding which wine to select for a dish. The old adage “White wine with white meats and red wines with red meats” is just a very lazy man’s way of not having to think. In place of taking the simple way out and categorize wines by color (a common problem in our society) you will find it much easier if you categorize them by weight. In other words, light wines with light foods and heavy wines with heavy foods.

This takes a bit of getting used to, and requires a lot more time, but it’s worth it overall. Consider light, thinly carved beef tenderloin, served with a touch of lemon and butter and seasoned with capers and fresh thyme. Would you serve a big, heavy Cabernet, or coarse Barbaresco? The meat would certainly get lost. But beef is red, and the “rule” proclaims you really should serve a red wine. Or, how about cioppino, a mix of shrimp, mussels, lobster and calamari in a rich tomato broth and served with crusty bread? Most Chardonnays and nearly all Chenin Blancs and Rieslings would disappear under the barrage of flavors.

It’s time to stop bothering the wines you must select and start thinking about enjoying the blending of good food, good wine and good company. There are two areas to concern yourself with regarding matching food and wine:

1) Pairing light foods with light wines.
2) Choosing whether you wish to complement or contrast the flavors.

The first one is easy. A light Beaujolais or even several lighter Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels are perfect matches for salmon, swordfish and even many shellfish dishes. Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs can easily withstand many veal, turkey and even duck dishes. If you know what the dish tastes like but not the wine, ask someone. Any wine merchant or restaurateur worth his or her salary really should know what it is that they’re trying to sell you.

Contrast and complementing are a bit more fascinating. Now we must definitely get into the actual preparation of the dish. A heavily spiced dish like cioppino, curry or rich tomato sauces go well with big, oaky Chardonnays as well as a brawny Amador County Zinfandel or a full-bodied Petite Sirah. Lots of herbs and spices maybe rounded off by a spicy Chateauneuf du Pape or an herbal, melony Sauvignon Blanc. Or, you could contrast them with a rich, cherry/berry Zinfandel or Barbera.

If you are still completely perplexed, lets take a look at the different kinds of wines.

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF WINE … their descriptions and flavors

APERITIF: FINO SHERRY (Feeno) or MANZANILLA (MAN-zahn-eeya) – Nutty, earthy, floral, tart. SERVE WITH Soups, appetizers, nuts, cheeses, smoked meats.

AMONTILLADO SHERRY (Ah-MAHN-tee-ahdo) – Caramel, smooth. SERVE WITH Soups, appetizers, cheeses, smoked meats, fish.


PINOT NOIR (PEA-no No-WAH) – Rose petal, raspberry, cotton candy, spicey, velvety, rich, cherries. The grape of the exceptional red Burgundies of France. SERVE WITH Game, lamb, chicken, salmon, swordfish.

BEAUJOLAIS (Bo-jho-LAY) – Strawberry, fresh, soft, grapey. Popular red wine of Beaujolais region of France. SERVE WITH Soups, cold salmon, chicken salad.

2) MEDIUM TO HEAVY REDS MERLOT (MER-low) – Grapey, briary, herbal, elegant, soft, rich. Softer wine similar to Cabernet and often blended with it. Coming into its own as a varietal. SERVE WITH Game, roast beef, lamb, stews.

ZINFANDEL (ZIN-fan-dell) – Raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, spicey. Uniquely California. Not sure of origin. Experimental plantings in South America and Italy. SERVE WITH Sweetbreads, roast beef, pork, venison.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Cab-er-NAY Soo-veen-YOHN) – Green olive, herbal, minty, truffles, earthy, cedar. The king of red wines. Adds strength and longevity to Bordeaux. Grows best in Napa Valley and Dry Creek, Sonoma and Alexander Valleys. SERVE WITH Rich meats like Beef Wellington, duck, lamb.

BARBERA (Bar-BEHR-Rah) – Grapey, spicey, woody. Fruity, yet substantial wine of the Piedmont area in Italy. SERVE WITH Hearty veal dishes, calamari.

PETITE SIRAH (Peh-TEE si-RAH) – Spicey, black pepper, blackberry, black currents Rich, full-bodied wine, very dark and tart. SERVE WITH Bouillabaisse, Pork, venison

3) LIGHT WHITES CHENIN BLANC (Chen-NEEN Blawn) – Melons, pears. Light, crisp wine. Can contain residual sugar. SERVE WITH Aperitif, chicken, light seafood dishes.

WHITE RIESLING (REES-ling) – Apricots, peaches, honey, green apples. Great noble grape of the Mosel and Rheingau areas of Germany. Good ones are tart. SERVE WITH Cream soups, saurbraten.

GEWURZTRAMINER (Geh-VERTZ-trah-meener) – Spice, honeydew, earthy. Can be very concentrated in spice, melon and pear flavors. Most have some sweetness. SERVE WITH Shellfish, red bell pepper soup.

4) MEDIUM TO HEAVY WHITES SAUVIGNON/FUME BLANC (Soo-veen-YOHN/FOO-may Blawn) – Herbal, earthy, grassy. Very dry and crisp with a slight herbal tinge. From the Loire and Bordeaux. Grows very well in the Central Coast, Alexander Valley and Napa. SERVE WITH Whitefish, monkfish, escargot.

SEMILLON (SEM-ee-yohn) – Figs, pineapple, soft. Richly flavored blending grape used in Bordeaux. Produced sparingly in California.

PINOT BLANC (Peano Blawn) – Bananas, melon, pineapple, buttery. Rich, concentrated flavors. Not grown in quantities due to difficulty in producing. SERVE WITH Chicken, veal, catfish.

CHARDONNAY (Shar-doe-NAY) – Green apples, butterscotch, vanilla, citrus, perfume. Great, noble grape of Burgundy. Most flavorful and versatile white grape. SERVE WITH Full flavored fish dishes like scallop mousse, lobster, salmon.

BEST BETS: Arrowood ($ 20), Matanzas Creek ($ 19), Freemark Abbey ($ 18), Rosemount Show

DESSERT WINES CREAM SHERRY-Vanilla, spice, cream. Smooth, rich “creamy” taste from a variety of Spanish grapes. SERVE WITH fruit souffle, cheesecake.

PORT-Black cherry, woody, tannic. Big, higher alcohol wine made in Portugal from five little-known varieties. SERVE WITH chocolate, raspberry desserts.

LATE HARVEST-Apricot, coconuts, raisins. Can be made from almost any grape, but primarily White Riesling, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. SERVE WITH fruit and nuts, cookies.

SPARKLING WINES BRUT – Dry, flinty, tart. Usually the driest of the bunch. Made with the least “dossage”. SERVE WITH caviar, smoked salmon.

BLANC DE NOIR (Blawn de No-war) – Full-bodied, crisp, fruity, yeasty. Typically made from Pinot Noir with some skin contact to give it color and a sturdier, more obvious flavor. SERVE WITH full flavored hors d’ouvres.

EXTRA DRY-Smooth, creamy, rich. A touch of sweetness, though not a “sweet” wine. SERVE WITH cake, fruits, nuts cheeses.

Armed with the above information is just enough to make you dangerous in a crowded room. This is only a suggestion. One way to further your food and wine parring expertise is to join a wine of the month club, Here you can prepare a meal based on the recipe and taste the paired wine. For every rule there is an opposite rule when it comes to wine. Just keep in mind than just when you think you know enough, along comes a further whole part you didn’t even realize existed. The essential thing to remember is to not get excited about it. Drink what you enjoy, with what you enjoy and with whom you enjoy. After all, it’s only a bottle of wine.