By Nick Victory
When it comes to pairing wine with food there are no rules; if it tastes good and feels right, just do it. You can serve red wine with fish or chicken, white wine with steak or lamb, and if your lady likes white zinfandel, ignore the wine snobs' turned-up noses and buy a bottle (it's very common for novice wine drinkers to start out enjoying white zin.) There should be no judgments. The pairing has more to do with the weight (tannin and mouth feel) of the wine than the color. More on this later.
If you don't want to be bothered by the food/wine pairing, an easy option is champagne. Champagne is the name of a wine-making district in France and only sparkling wines produced there, from specific varieties of grapes, can be called champagnes. Bottles not from France are usually labeled sparkling wine, unless it's Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy. You can't go wrong with any of these, as the fizz pairs gorgeously with almost any food combination. Sparkling wines can be served prior to the meal, with the meal, or even afterwards as dessert. They're best served at refrigerator temperature. It's also common lore that champagne gets girls into the mood even faster." (My initial studies do confirm this but you should conduct your own independent study.)
For a very special evening or meal, go with a rosé Champagne. Although some people think rosés are inferior to regular Champagne, in actuality they're harder to make and usually more expensive. Plus the rosé color will add flair and fun to your table. This bubbly pink drink will appeal to your girl's feminine side. But be careful not to point the bottle at your date when you open it. You don't want to give her a black eye before the evening has started.
White wines generally pair better with food than red. Although the most commonly thought of white to go with food is Chardonnay, watch out. She (the Chardonnay) is the "bad girl" your mom warned you about. (At least when pairing with food, the voluptuous, sexy, get-around-be-around bombshell is never good for long term coupling.) Chardonnays are usually big, rich, over-oaked monstrosities which overpower food. However, this bold flavor is why certain Chardonnays can be paired well with a steak. Who would have thought?
For most food pairings, try and pick up a Sauvignon Blanc, Fume Blanc, Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gris, all of which you can pair easily with summer salads, light pastas, white fish, grilled chicken or food prepared with a light, complimentary sauce. Generally lighter-bodied and refreshing wines, they show nice structure, acid, mineral notes, and herbal qualities and are quite easy to drink. (Plus, because their alcohol content SEEMS light, she'll be sipping on these all night long.)
If you're looking for a more wild or exotic white, or for something extra special, search out a Riesling or a Gewurstraminer. These wines have an exotic, perfumy, floral, almost sweet bouquet and again, their light body and seemingly low alcohol content will quench her thirst. You may have to get two bottles for yourselves. These wines go best with hot Asian or Indian foods that need a bit of sweetness to counter their spiciness.
Red wines are typically what we all graduate to, after progressing through our white Zinfandel then regular white phases (we all have to start somewhere!) An inexperienced wine drinker will often select a red that overpowers the food it's paired with. The main varieties (from lightest to heaviest) are Chianti & Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Zinfandel and Syrah (aka Shiraz if you are drinking the Australian variety.) My recommendation would be to lean more toward the Pinots and the Chiantis. Because of their lighter, fruitier, more approachable style, they will be more enjoyed by the ladies. Perfect pairings include salmon, tuna, chicken, veal, pork and even lamb or steak. They also go beautifully with pasta dishes, but depending on the sauce you may want to go with a white. Generally speaking, with tomato or spicy pasta sauces, stick to reds. With white, cream or olive oil-based pasta sauces, choose a white wines. As you explore these wines you'll realize there is a broad range of styles, from restrained tannic (tart), earthy, deep wines to more flirtatious, fruit-forward, expressive wines.
Merlot is a good middle ground choice which, unfortunately, has gotten a bad rap due to the movie Sideways. Due to the film, its sales actually dropped by more than 15% in the US and Pinot's sales skyrocketed. Merlot wines have a nice balance and usually have soft, rounded fruit. Merlots, Pinots and Chiantis can even be drunk on their own.
Last but not least are the big boys. These Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels and Syrahs pair best with steak, lamb, barbequed meats and heavy dishes. These inky-purple, gorgeous wines are jammy, blueberry, mocha, tobacco, lush bombs that become very seductive as the night wears on. They do, however, have more tannins than the other reds, which gives them a slightly bitter or tart flavor. They'll need a little more time sitting in an open bottle to soften them up. If you've ever thought the taste of your wine has changed as the night wears on, it doesn't mean you were tipsy or drunk. Wine is a living, breathing liquid and will change as it interplays with the air.
For those very special occasions, don't forget the sweet stuff to go with your sweet stuff. Many times women have a sweet tooth that we can not satisfy all on our own, no matter how hard we try. At these times turn to a port (a red, sweet, dessert wine) or a sauterne (a white, sweet, desert wine.) Port is best paired with chocolate and chocolate-based deserts, while sauternes go very well with fruits and cream-based desserts. If you are having some cheese to finish off your meal, depending on the weight of the cheese, once again, choose a port or sauterne. Go ahead and guess, experiment, with time you will learn the skill of matching your food with wine.
Depending on your mood and your food choice, there is a world of wines to choose from. While intimidating at first, the best way to get your feet wet is to tackle wine with breathless abandon and an eagerness to learn and enjoy. Remember that the more bottles you taste, the more experience you shall gain. Just one last thing. No chugging! Please try and make that bottle last more than three minutes!
Nick Victory is an avid wine aficionado who has formed relationships and friendships with winemakers, sommeliers, and winery owners up and down the CA coast. He attends annual wine festivals, is planning to get his sommelier certification, and is embarking upon crafting his own wine very soon from Central Coast grapes.