It's Friday night. You and your nearest and dearest arrive at the new, swanky restaurant in town, dressed to kill and ready to celebrate your anniversary/big promotion/making it through another week virtually unscathed.
Everything is perfectly right with the world until the wine list is dropped in your lap and, like a needle scratching across a record, your fabulous evening just came to a crashing halt. You're supposed to order the perfect wine for the table. Now what?
Over the courses of our sommelier careers, it's become painfully obvious that nothing strikes terror into dinner guests more than having to be responsible for ordering the wine.
Our motto has always been "drink what you love and love what you drink" -- but sometimes that's just too frustrating when all you want is an answer to what will be the best match to your roast chicken and your wife's pasta primavera.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be offering some basic advice on how to order wine in a restaurant as though you were born doing it.
This week, we're tackling the often bewildering practice of pairing wine and food, and some simple wine pairing tips that you can lean on in a jam.
Sparkling wine, Pinot Noir and Riesling are life savers. You can't go wrong with these options. Sparkling wine is a chameleon that's brilliant when paired with just about anything from fried calamari to salty caviar to rich pâté. Riesling's high acidity and fresh, unoaked flavours mean it's a natural choice for aromatic Thai, spicy Mexican or even your standard Sunday roast chicken. Pinot Noir, the ethereal red grape of Burgundy, has soft tannins and earthy flavour. For anything from grilled salmon to duck confit to lamb chops, this wine not only holds its own, but enhances the food it's paired with.
Compliment or contrast -- everything else stems from here. Just like putting together an outfit that's either a complimentary, monochromatic all-black number, or a sharply contrasting black and white ensemble, pairing wine and food follows the same principal. Rich, indulgent foods like cream sauces or butter do well with wines that can be described the same way. Think oaky California Chardonnay and lobster with drawn butter. Or, you may choose to cut the richness with a palate cleansing, contrasting, Pinot Grigio. Big, tannic reds and fatty meats also contrast each other as the tannins in the wine cut through rich meat like grilled ribeye and Cabernet Sauvignon.
If It grows together, it goes together. Have you ever wondered how pasta and tomato sauce with Chianti became such a classic? Or why Boeuf bourguignon is served with Pinot Noir? It's because those foods and wines came from the same place and, more often than not, they go inherently well with each other.
Work with weight. Just like prize fighters, wine and food need to be in the same weight category. Poached scallops are a light dish and therefore demand a light bodied wine, such as Soave, while hearty venison stew requires a considerably bigger red, like Zinfandel.
Pair the strongest flavour in the dish with wine -- not necessarily the main ingredient. If you're indulging in Oysters Rockefeller, in which oysters are broiled with bacon, cheese and spinach for a lusciously rich dish, it's better to pair with the topping rather than the oyster. A New World Chardonnay is what we'd pick over the traditional raw oyster pairing of crisp Chablis. But this may also be a good time to review tip number one.
Red wine and seafood is gross. We really try to support our guests in their drinking preferences, but this is where we have to draw the line. When the chemical compounds in seafood mix with tannins and compounds in red wine, the result is metallic tasting shellfish and muted wine. This can happen with some cheeses as well, but many people seem to have a higher tolerance for that combination. Which brings us to...
Some pairings are just flat out tough. Artichokes, asparagus, eggs and chocolate can be notoriously difficult. Oily fish and garlic can also be tastebud landmines. When it comes to these foods, consider preparation and other elements on the dish. Generally asparagus and Sauvignon Blanc work, as do eggs with sparkling wine, and garlic with Chardonnay.
Keep it sweet -- and sweeter still. When it comes to sweet desserts, be careful the wine you pick is sweeter than the dessert itself, otherwise you risk your wine tasting flat, bitter and overly tannic or acidic. Port is a very good option for chocolate and nutty desserts, Canadian Icewine can be fantastic with cheesecake, and a fruity Moscato d'Asti sparkling is lovely with mild crème brûlée or poached fruit.
Don't go crazy -- yet. You've heard the saying "Idle hands make the devil's work," right? The same can be true for bored sommeliers. Because many of us have been matching food and wine for so long, it's become as rote as breathing, blinking and drinking. Sometimes, we want to shake it up a bit and stretch our wine know-how with a few esoteric matches that may just be crazy enough to work. You shouldn't do this -- at least not now. If you're already sweating bullets over what to order with your roast chicken, stick the basics we're recommending here, and once you've found your groove, go crazy.