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Don't let that endless wine list intimidate you — all that really matters is how the wine you choose pairs up with the food you order.

Perfect Pairings


A winemaker told me a couple years ago that wine is the only business he knows that does everything it can to scare people off. It seems so complicated. And some of it is — like oxidative polymerization, brix at harvest, vinifera vs. hybrid vs. varietal vs. appellation vs. blah blah blah. And then there's the frightening wine-snob vocabulary.

But for consumers very little of that matters, especially when dining out, or even dining in. All that really matters is how the wine pairs with the food. Unfortunately, many restaurants miss the opportunity to help customers through what is sometimes a jumbled maze of options on their wine lists. In all fairness, to do it right takes some intentional effort, and only a handful of restaurants do it well.

The best restaurant wine lists I have ever come across are not lists at all. Instead, they are carefully selected pairings chosen for each entrée and listed right underneath it on the menu. This approach makes no assumptions about the diners and shows that the chef, or someone at the restaurant, takes great care in how flavors blend together and doesn't want me to make a poor decision that might impact my opinion of the food.

It also requires, of course, that the chef or somebody who knows the food well, sample each dish with an array of wines, consider the tastes of the customers, and decide on the two or three wines that work best for each item. That doesn't happen very often, though sometimes a restaurant does this and just doesn't tell you in print. When in doubt, ask the waiter.

The next best consumer-friendly wine list is grouped first by variety — chardonnay, Riesling, pinot noir — and subgrouped by region — California, Australia, Italy, France. This kind of listing assumes that diners have an idea of what type of wine they like and a general idea of the different flavors associated with each wine. But it doesn't assume they know the main grape in the blend of, say, red Bordeaux, which is often cabernet sauvignon but also can be merlot. Having that indicated by careful grouping can be helpful and educational.

Most often, however, the wine list is divorced from the menu, frequently in a separate book, and sometimes assuming vast knowledge of vintages or a decision based on dollar signs. This is no help and is no way to pick a wine. So how do you pare it down?

First, recognize that you're going to pay a lot more - two to three times retail — for wine in a restaurant, so forget bargain hunting. Figure what you're willing to pay and stay in your range.

Second, develop a taste/flavor memory and think of wine as another seasoning in the dish. Consider the sauce, the spices and other ingredients, and imagine what other flavors would go well. Of course, this takes time — though the practice is delicious — so while you're rehearsing, follow these basic principles and you'll be good to go:

Red wine with red meat; white with white meat including fish. There are significant exceptions, of course, but follow this general rule and you're off to a good start.

Light dish, light wine; heavy dish, heavy wine.

Regional dish, regional wine: When in Rome ….

When in doubt, ask the waiter. Any waiter worth the tip will make a recommendation or will seek out the chef for advice.

For a top restaurant wine cellar, the goal is to obtain as many examples as possible of the best vintages of the classic grape varieties from the classic wine regions of the world. Doing this, of course, would set you back thousands of dollars and must be done over time to be at all worth the investment.

More important for diners is the wine list that is developed for the sake of the menu. This is an infinitely trickier business for a restaurateur, who must pair his or her own tastes with those of the dining public and offer an array of wines to go with each dish on the menu at prices that don't border on usury.

Only a handful of restaurants bother to do this, many relying on the suggestions of the wholesaler of the week. But at those that do, you will find chefs and waiters knowledgeable about the wines and wine-food pairings and, often, prices that are reasonable (for restaurants) because the goal is to move the wine rather than cellar it for the next decade.

The better wine lists have been carefully assembled either by the chef or by someone who knows something about cooking and flavor combinations. Often, as a selling point, wine lists will tell you this straight-up which helps ease the burden of selecting just the right wine.

For me, the best situation is to have a wine list separate from the menu, but also a listing of perhaps two wines along with each menu item.

Cheat Sheet
Clip-and-save this handy primer on perfect wine pairings to help you choose a bottle that can't lose. (The wines in parentheses are the European wine that contains the named grape variety.)

Asian: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, oak mellowed chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or French Chablis, which is made from chardonnay grapes but is more lemony.

Game birds: syrah (C“te du Rh“ne in France), Australian shiraz, Washington state pinot noir, French pinot noir (Burgundy).

Chicken: chardonnay-semillon, pinot gris, California chardonnay, French chardonnay (Burgundy), seyval, Beaujolais, Oregon pinot noir, French pinot noir (Burgundy). Pretty much anything.

Beef: California cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or cabernet Franc, French red Bordeaux (which is a blend of these grape varieties), zinfandel, shiraz, Malbec.

Pork: pinot noir (Burgundy), California or Australian chardonnay.

Spicy foods: syrah, Rioja or exotic, complex whites like Gewurztraminer or Riesling.

Italian: sangiovese (Chianti in Italy), Nebbiolo, barbera, "Super Tuscan" blendings of sangiovese with merlot or cabernet sauvignon.

Fish: Crisp, acidic whites to clean out the oils, sauvignon blanc (Sancerre, Pouilly, white Bordeaux), pinot grigio, Muscadet. (Note: A significant exception is salmon, which can go well with a fruity game wine. Also, more substantial fish like tuna can work well with merlot or a more complex white like an oak-tinted chardonnay. For an adventurous kick, try a French rosé.)

— Patrick Getlein

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