Food and Wine Pairing Made Perfectly Simple

You have guests over for dinner. You are confident about your cooking (or caterer) but less sure about what drinks to serve.

Or, you are at a business lunch or company retreat and want to make a good impression.

Or, how about going out to a fine restaurant on a first date?

Wine is usually the obvious choice in these instances, but how do you know what to select, especially if there are several meal courses involved?

"Fine Wine Can Turn a Good Meal into a Feast"

Admittedly, too much ado is sometimes being made about matching the right wines with specific foods, which can be intimidating and unnecessarily off-putting. Some critics say there is a ridiculous amount of snobbery around wine to begin with, and all the talk of what wine goes with what food is no exception. While there may be some truth to that, it is also a fact that a well-chosen wine does indeed have the ability to enhance the enjoyment of almost any dining experience.

The legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi is credited with saying, "Fine wine can turn a good meal into a feast." Those who had the privilege to meet this icon of vinification (myself included) know that he lived his life with the intent to prove his point.

Although I'm not an authority on wine by any stretch of the imagination, I like an occasional glass with my favorite eats. And, after having spent many years visiting wine regions around the world, I do appreciate what I've been able to learn along the way.

The best formula for successful food and wine pairing I've ever come across was offered by the famed wine writer Tom Stevenson. "There is only one golden rule when you are selecting a wine to accompany a dish," he writes. "The more delicately flavored the dish, the more delicate the wine should be, whereas fuller-flavored foods can take fuller-flavored wines. It's as simple as that."

Of course, this rule is extremely flexible, depending on personal tastes and preferences as well as multiple other factors. An often recommended approach is to start out with something you already know and like. If you are unfamiliar with a certain culinary creation, it won't do you much good to combine it with a wine you've never tasted either. You may encounter some exotic specialty, but how do you know which wine(s) make the experience complete? Of course, you can follow expert advice, but, in most cases, it makes more sense to go with a conventional pairing until you're ready to experiment and further explore.

For absolute novices, it may suffice initially to learn how to keep reds and whites apart. The basic guidelines hereto are that red meat (including game) goes well with red wine, while salads, most seafood and poultry are best matched with white varietals. You may also be interested in finding out which wines can be enjoyed on their own, as aperitifs or dessert drinks. Here, too, the options are plentiful.

Let me add one quick remark about the quality of the wines you should order or purchase. Generally speaking, as with your food, the wines you enjoy are almost always the right ones. Similarly to Stevenson's advice on delicacy, you may wish to consider matching elaborate meals with more complex wines and, conversely, simpler dishes with something easier.

In any case, you should never get seduced by overpriced wine lists, ratings and reviews by self-appointed authorities or niche publications, or any other party keen on selling you a product you know little or nothing about. Instead, follow your own desires, perhaps even instincts, and don't allow yourself to feel pressured or hurried. So what if you make mistakes here and there? Nobody is born a sommelier. The fun lies in all the experiences you can have, and there is no telling what discoveries may come your way.

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Timi Gustafson
Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.. Follow Timi on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.