"Ew, I wouldn't date him. He's a Sauvignon blanc drinker!"
So said my server to her coworker, spitting the words out as though "Sauvignon blanc drinker" were synonymous with "Nazi memorabilia collector." Whether she meant me to overhear this talk, 30 seconds after she dropped off my glass of Sauvignon blanc, I'm not sure. In my defense, I had just ordered an arugula-salmon salad monstrosity with artichoke hearts and a raspberry vinaigrette, and they had fuck-all else to pair with it. Then I thought that maybe she was just testing me, so I left my number in lieu of a tip* (call me!).
Here's the thing about Sauvignon blanc: It's trendy, it's safe, it's not embraced by the wine snob crowd, but dammit does it make a good wine pairing with these hefty salads. Sure, I could have gone with the lemony, groovy Riesling-Chenin blanc blend from 20 miles down the road to please her hipster, granola-local tastes (why won't you call me???). But, even though it shares Sauvignon blanc's citrus-flavor profile, the blend would taste like raw sewage with all those various textures in the salad—the crisp arugula, the briny artichoke, the butter-soft salmon, the oyster-like smoker's loogie she buried under that slice of onion.
This is a pretty roundabout way of saying that wine pairing is more than just matching flavors. You have to consider the most basic aspects of your wine—essentially, how it feels, and how it interacts with your tongue. Flavors are largely subjective, and there's no way I can write a guide to your own palate. You can use common sense for the most part: smoky notes with ribs, citrus notes with seafood, chocolate notes with your significant other's naughty bits, and so on; so long as you match the substance of the wine, the flavors are just another ingredient to the meal.
One thing that trips people up when pairing wine is looking for a pair for the main protein in a dish without considering the ingredients that surround it. Essentially, you should be looking at the strongest, most definitive components of the dish, rather than simply pairing wine with the main ingredient. Think of the difference between, say, shrimp scampi (buttery, rich) and shrimp marinara (bright, acidic). The sauces, not the meat and pasta, are the difference-makers here, and you will pair your wine with those, not with the shrimp.
Now that I've needlessly complicated the situation with my obnoxious opinions and various insecurities, here are some basic wine-pairing concepts that, once you have them down, make the whole thing almost comically simple.
The first thing to do is ignore flavor. I said no tasting, dammit! All we care about right now is density. You'll want to match like with like; for now, we're establishing a range of potential wine pairings rather than finding The One. We're not Robert Parker Jr., for God's sake (or thank God, either one works).
Think of body as a sliding scale, with a rich, full-bodied red wine matching a fatty, meaty meal, and a delicate, light-bodied white wine matching a lean, low-protein offering. Most meals will fall between these extremes, and you will pair your wine accordingly.
Basically, body and structure refer to how the wine feels in your mouth. A light-bodied wine, like, say, Beaujolais or Riesling, will have a consistency similar to skim milk and leave the tongue almost instantly. A medium-bodied wine, like Pinot noir or Sauvignon blanc, will feel more like whole milk and stick around in the mouth for a hot second. A full-bodied wine, like Cabernet Sauvignon or oaked Chardonnay, can be as creamy as half-and-half and will treat your teeth like your derelict cousin has been treating your couch since 2003.
A wine's body comes from several components; the most prominent of these are acid, tannins, the aging process (oaked wines are denser than stainless steel aged), and alcohol. Your server or wine-seller will know the tannins and acidity of a wine from the grape varieties used to make it. The alcohol and aging process will usually be noted on the bottle's label. We good? Rock on.
Let's put our sliding scale to the test. A marinated, char-grilled filet of beef demands a wine with a massive body from high tannins and alcohol, the classic Cabernet Sauvignon match-up that's firing mercury off the scale like a cartoon thermometer; you can't get much denser than that fine hunk of beef, and Bordeaux wines are legendary for their massive profile. Serve that beef sliced over a Caesar salad, though, and you want to dial it back to a more subdued red, a Shiraz or a Rioja, perhaps, to match the creamy, lighter fare. Remove the steak entirely, and now you're looking at a white wine with just a little oomph to take on that dressing, maybe a medium-bodied Chablis-style Chardonnay. Take away the dressing? Anything bigger than a teeny tiny Albarino, and your defenseless lettuce will crumple before it.
Let's do a couple more examples. Having an oyster or shrimp appetizer? Put up anything richer than that aforementioned Chablis, and it'll taste like you're chewing Vince Young's Wonderlic test. Want a challenge? Macaroni and cheese requires at least a fuller-bodied Chardonnay and would steamroll right over a Pinot grigio. Toss in some bacon, and now Pinot noir could be called upon to take on that oven-baked brick of carbs, fat, and glorious sexual tension.
Next for you to consider is acid, both in the food and the wine. You will want to match acid with acid; as Dock Ellis demonstrated, the player with acid will simply overwhelm the one without. Having a salad with a vinaigrette? Go for a Sauvignon blanc or Picpoul de Pinet to match that crisp zing. Having a meal with a tomato-based sauce? A high-acid red like Sangiovese or Gamay will counter the punch of the tomato. Pair a low-acid, high-tannin Bordeaux with a plate of spaghetti, and you might as well be taking shots of pickle juice and cheap whiskey. Pair a high-acid Trebbiano with a buttery chicken dish, and you might as well be eating plain oatmeal.
Sugar is one last consideration and the wildcard for pairing your wine. Sugar is the cure-all when it comes to balancing the non-acid flavors (spice, piquant heat, sweetness, and salt) of your meal. If your dish has an excess of one of these flavors—think General Tso's chicken, a bowl of chili, or basically any Cajun food—even the beefiest dry wine will face-plant like Tony Romo in the fourth quarter. A wine with a little sugar to it—maybe Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or an off-dry red like Lambrusco—will balance out these basic taste components quite nicely. Salt is the most dangerous offender, here: Any extra salt beyond the usual dash will cut right through the subtle descriptors of the wine and amplify the alcohol and tannic flavors.
In addition to the classic off-dry white wines, most "dry" sparkling wines actually feature at least a few grams of sugar per liter, along with a good dose of acid, which can fight back against salt and let the more understated flavors of food and wine mingle. This is one reason sparkling wine is preferred as an aperitif: It's one of the few wines that can stand up to the pungent, saline flavors of most appetizers. That, and holy shit is champagne delicious. Oh man.
[leers seductively at a bottle of Duval Leroy]
[is shot down, hard]
[settles for Korbel, again]
Looking for some catch-all wines? Did anything you just read make you go, "Shit, this ain't worth my time"? Here are three very affordable options that I always keep on the rack at home, which you can stash for a reliable pairing with almost anything you serve:
Rosé: Rosé wines are the most versatile, overlooked, and underrated wines in the known universe. They've been given a bad name by White Zinfandels—the sticky, saccharine, Smirnoff Ices of the wine-drinking world—but they offer an experience unique from both white and red wine.
With a good, medium-bodied Rosé—from, say, a Cabernet or a Merlot grape—you'll get a crisp but hardy flavor that can tackle anything from shrimp cocktail to smoked ribs with equal aplomb. Medium-bodied rosés straddle the fruit-flavor line between the lemon and mango of their white brethren and the currant and blackberry of the reds, offering descriptors such as strawberry candy or tart cherry that can pair charmingly on either side of the red/white divide. They'll even take on a bit of heat or saltiness without dissolving into decanted jet fuel in your mouth.
Gruner Veltliner: Gruner Veltliner is the answer to the question that has frustrated wannabe sommeliers for years: What in the blue hell do I pair with sushi? (Contrary to popular opinion, the answer ain't saké. Being rice-based itself, saké pairs with sushi about as well as tentacle porn with a Highlights magazine: The similar rice flavors in the food and drink compete with each other, rather than complement one another.) Gruner has the bright, spicy, fruit-forward flavors and acidic backbone to take on both the delicate, fishy bouquet of sushi and the hidden smear of wasabi paste that makes your throat close and your eyes water while you vainly pretend your allergies are acting up.
Aside from that little trick, Gruner will take on savory, smoky, or salty dishes, from salad to pasta to even a charcuterie plate. Starchy, meaty, and vegetal dishes all cower before the might of Gruner. If you've got a meateater in the house who thinks red wine tastes like vinegar and gasoline, try serving them this; so long as you're not serving it with steak or lamb straight up, you should be OK.
Two more pluses? Gruners are almost always drinkable under $10 (and even finer ones will only set you back about $15-$20), and they often come in liter bottles rather than the standard 750 milliliters. That's 33 percent more drunk, absolutely free!
Sangiovese: Sangiovese—specifically Chianti, a mostly Sangiovese blend—is embraced by Italians as a catch-all wine pairing, and they seem to be pretty on the ball, at least so long as you discount World Wars I and II, Silvio Berlusconi, Nero, the grotesquely hirsute, paunchy, Speedo-clad bald man who parks himself next to you at every beach on earth, and The Godfather: Part III. The list of foods Italians will throw down with a glass of house Chianti is limitless. Pizza? Chianti. Grilled salmon? Chianti. Lentil soup? Chianti. Aged Play-Doh in a goat-urine reduction? Possibly Chianti!
Italian Sangiovese will typically have more of an affinity for richer, heavier dishes—Chianti is the cornerstone of the classic tomato sauce pairing, remember—but you should be able to serve it regardless of region with anything from fish to chicken to lamb without too much of a disparity. Try serving it in place of white wine if you're hosting someone who'd sooner toss back a hobo's chaw spittoon than a glass of Sauvignon blanc.
The final word on wine pairing, and the caveat that every modest wine snob tosses out after frothing at the mouth about never pairing red wine with chocolate or roaring with great vengeance and furious anger that Pinot noir is the only acceptable pairing for grilled salmon, is this: drink what you like. Want that oaky Chardonnay with your bacon-wrapped filet mignon? Go for it! Want to toss back some Montepulciano with your spring salad? Why not! Just ignore those bitter, angry husks in the corner judging the ever-loving piss out of you. We're just crabby since we haven't eaten in three days: We refuse to eat our gruel with anything less than a Chateauneuf, and are the worst.
*Don't actually stiff your servers. Even if they do insult your taste in wine. Sincerely, a former server.
Joshua Sweeney is a longtime Deadspin commenter (Body By Bacardi), a wine industry veteran, and a former wine blogger. If you have wine questions you'd like answered, you can reach him on Twitter at @wineaccguy or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Image by Sam Woolley.