The first thing to remember about matching food and wine is to forget the rules! Forget about should and should nots, forget about complicated systems for selecting the right wine to enhance the food on the table. It’s not rocket science, it’s plain old common sense. Follow your instincts!
Choose a wine that you want to drink by itself. Despite all the hoopla about matching wine and food, you will probably drink most of the wine without the benefit of food–either before the food is served or after you’ve finished your meal. Therefore, you’ll not go too far wrong if you make sure the food is good and the wine is, too. Even if the match is not perfect, you will still enjoy what you’re drinking.
This is where common sense comes in. The old rule about white wine with fish and red wine with meat made perfect sense in the days when white wines were light and fruity and red wines were tannic and weighty. But today, when most California Chardonnays are heavier and fuller-bodied than most California Pinot Noirs and even some Cabernets, color coding does not always work.
Red wines as a category are distinct from whites in two main ways: tannins–many red wines have them, few white wines do–and flavors. White and red wines share many common flavors; both can be spicy, buttery, leathery, earthy or floral. But the apple, pear and citrus flavors in many white wines seldom show up in reds, and the currant, cherry and stone fruit flavors of red grapes usually do not appear in whites.
In the wine-and-food matching game, these flavor differences come under the heading of subtleties. You can make better wine choices by focusing on a wine’s size and weight. Like human beings, wines come in all dimensions. To match them with food, it’s useful to know where they
fit in a spectrum, with the lightest wines at one end and fuller-bodied wines toward the other end.
To help put the world of wines into perspective, we offer the following lists, which arrange many of the most commonly encountered wines into a hierarchy based on size, from lightest to weightiest. If you balance the
wine with the food by choosing one that will seem about the same weight as the food, you raise the odds dramatically that the match will succeed.
Yes, purists, some Champagnes are more delicate than some Rieslings and some Sauvignon Blancs are bigger than some Chardonnays, but we’re trying to paint with broad strokes here. When you’re searching for a light wine to go with dinner, pick one from the top end of the list.
When you want a bigger wine, look toward the end.
Selected dry and off-dry white wines, lightest to weightiest:
- Pinot Grigio
- Off-dry Riesling
- Dry Riesling
- Champagne & other dry sparkling wines
- Chenin Blanc
- French Chablis & other unoaked Chardonnays
- Sauvignon Blanc
- White Bordeaux
- White Burgundy
- Pinot Gris (Alsace, Tokay)
- Barrel-fermented or barrel-aged
Selected red wines, lightest to weightiest:
- California Pinot Noir
- Chianti Classico
- Merlot (US)
- Sauvignon (US, Australia)