Berger: How to pair wine with food

A reader recently asked if I chose the wine first or the food.

As with most things in our lives, there is no particular pattern that fits every situation. Some days I have a hankering for a particular wine, and the food can be anything. Other times, we plan to make a particular dish, and we’ll pick the wine accordingly.

Then there are times when we serve a series of unconnected dishes with whatever wine is left from the night before.

Since there are no hard/fast rules to wine/food pairings, we try to match flavors as best we can. There are some basic things to keep in mind.

Pasta and other dishes with tomato sauces: These work best with red wines that are tart enough to compete with the acidity from the tomatoes. We prefer Chianti, barbera and even zinfandel when we can find one with moderate alcohol. Higher-alcohol wines tend to leave a slightly sweet aftertaste, which does not always work well with tomato sauces.

Canapés, cheese and crackers, dips, and other light hors d’oeuvres: All dry sparkling wines are festive and tasty with patio fare, but there are infinite choices. With assertive cheeses, try New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Austrian gruner veltliner, dry chenin blanc or even a white wine from the Rhône Valley.

Spicy Thai, Indian curries and other spicy Far East dishes: Medium-dry Rieslings, Gewurztraminer and pinot grigio will help tame the heat. The spicier the food, the sweeter the wine can be.

Cantonese cuisine: Dry Riesling, pinot gris and chenin blanc.

Grilled steaks: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and hefty zinfandels work best here, and if the meat is well-seasoned with pepper, red wines from cold climates can be winners, with their slightly peppery aromatics.

Lamb: Young zinfandels usually have enough fruit to compete with the slight gaminess of the dish.

Rare roast beef, salmon, steelhead and grilled tuna: Pinot noir and other lighter red wines such as Côtes du Rhône, Cru Beaujolais and grenache. Dry rosé also works nicely here, with the best from Coteaux D’aix-en-Provence.

Beef stew, hamburgers and other assertive meat dishes: Any hearty red wine, including petite sirah and strongly flavored blends that feature syrah as a major component.

Delicate seafood dishes, including oysters and other shellfish: Crisp dry white wines such as Loire Valley sauvignon blanc, muscadet, vermentino, dry Riesling and pinot blanc.

Seafood with cream sauces and/or lemon butter, as well as bisques: Rich and unctuous chardonnays.

There are dozens of exceptions, many related to how each wine or dish was produced.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles ($30): This Rhône Valley grape is rarely made into a varietal wine. Here it is more classic, with a slightly minerally aroma and a hint of spice. The mid-palate is succulent, and the finish is crisp.

Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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