Last Updated on February 9, 2021 by Bill Allen
Wine Pairings & How to Order Wine at a Restaurant
What's in this article...
- Wine Pairings & How to Order Wine at a Restaurant
The Wine List
When dining out, the wine list is an integral part of the meal. Expensive restaurants will often have a separate book for their wines while others may include them at the back or end of the menu.
Every wine list will take some time to sift through and, depending on the country, can be arranged by grape variety or region. Traditionally, wines are listed cheapest to most expensive in top to bottom order. Be careful however because restaurants have, more recently, begun listing wines by weight, with the lighter wines at the top.
The wine list is meant to give customers a good idea of the quality of each wine offered. It should, but most definitely will not always, include information about a wine’s region, variety, vintage and producer.
If after looking through the list there arise some questions, it is best to ask the waiter. Make sure he knows his wine by asking him a question or two about the wines you are familiar with.
Ordering the Wine
Dinners with a large group can be difficult to pair with a single bottle of wine.
Before ordering, make sure you are aware of the dishes everyone has decided on. If the dishes range widely, consider a wine that is flexible enough to accommodate them all.
These wines include reds such as the Beaujolais, Merlot, and Zinfandel. White wines such as oaky Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or sparkling also tend to do well with many types of dishes.
If the meal consists of several courses, it is best to move from white to red wines in the order that they are best paired with the dishes. This way, more than one bottle of wine can be enjoyed trough out the meal.
An even better option to ordering more than one bottle of wine is ordering wine by the glass. This relieves major worries about satisfying every individual’s wine needs.
When the wine arrives, the bottle should be examined before opening to make sure that it is the same vintage and producer that was on the list.
If you’re in a good restaurant, their staff should know the proper steps on how to serve wine. After the waiter opens the bottle, the cork should be turned over to you for examination. A few deep sniffs can help you recognize corkiness in the wine. Also, producers often put their marks on the corks as well.
The waiter should then pour you a glass for further testing. Hopefully the waiter will know the differences between wine glasses and bring you the proper one to match your wine correctly.
Taste the wine and pay attention to the color of the wine in the glass. After the bottle has passed your examinations, the waiter may commence with pouring for the table.
If you’re having a nice bottle of red wine, it may also be nice to ask for a glass wine decanter. This allows the wine to breathe while you are eating and enjoying the glass you already have. It can also help to see the true colors of the wine at the table.
Oxidized white wines will have a brown or yellow tint and red wines will exhibit a brownish color at the cusp of the bowl.
A good restaurant will be happy to replace the bottle. If problems aren’t recognized until midway through the meal, the waiter should be notified and the bottle still replaced.
Having a backup selection when looking through the wine list can help move things along if problems are detected with your first choice.
Aside from customary and established partnerships, wine pairing is largely dependent on individual tastes and preferences.
In its essence, pairing food and wine is about balance. Most people wouldn’t enjoy a delicate piece of fish smothered in garlic and coated in lemon sauce. In cooking, you choose flavors that compliment and work off each other. The same idea is at the core of wine pairings.
With this in mind, one can try out different pairings depending on whether you enjoy spicy, sweet, meaty, or robust flavors. Look through this article to learn about traditional wine pairings and how they are determined.
The traditional rule of red wine with meat, poultry, or game is a good way to avoid catastrophic mistakes, however, where an entire meal is concerned, spices and sauces need to be considered. As a general idea, a hearty red wine is best with simply cooked beef.
These can range from Cabernets to Zinfandels to Barolos. Barbecued beef benefits from full bodied wines such as Zinfandel.
Spicy dishes like beef curry benefit from a dry Riesling or unoaked Sauvignon Blanc. Hamburger is a beef that is often just one component of many, hence a wine pairing challenge.
Californian Syrahs, Cabernets, or light, red Zinfandels work well at harmonizing with the pickles, catsup and other ingredients.
Tannin wines work especially well with beef or meat dishes. The thick flavors of the meat soften the wine and the sharp flavors of the wine soften the meat.
It is quite a beautiful relationship.
Beef dishes such as liver do well with red wines like the Pinot Noir or Merlot.
Roast is one dish that is best served with the best wine you’ve got and a rich Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon is often best.
One dish that always calls for red wine is steak. A red French region Bordeaux or a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon work well with most steaks.
Many different types of cheeses tend to work very well with sweet, white wines. Blue cheeses are generally very acidic and benefit from wines that can balance this trait. Different blue cheeses require various wine selections.
The French Roquefort, for example, does well with Sauterne or Sauvignon Blanc. Stilton cheese pairs well with aged vintage port and Cabrales cheeses benefit from dry Oloroso sherries and big red wines like Barolo and Shiraz.
Creamier cheeses such as Brie and Camembert go better with very young, red wines with layers of fruity flavor. Try Pinot Noir and Beaujolais for a good pairing. Cheddar has a harder texture than most other cheeses and goes better with a wine that can curb its sharp flavor.
While Red Bordeaux is to be avoided at all cost, Oloroso sherry and vintage port do very well with this cheese.
Goat’s milk cheeses tend to lean towards bold flavors and soft textures. These match well with Sancerre, Sauternes, and aged ports. Aged cheeses and aged wines, such as the Gouda and Bordeaux, harmonize well with each other.
Manchego cheese can be served with delicate Muscat, vintage port, or light Zinfandels.
Parmigiano and Reggiano cheeses involve bold flavors that will overpower subtle wines. Big red wines like the Barolo and aged Cabernet Sauvignon will balance this cheese well.
Pecorino cheese, on the other hand, has sharp hints of nut and hard texture that will compliment with Zinfandel and Rose wines.
Traditionally, dessert wines are considered tasty treats all by themselves. Although best enjoyed on their own, dessert wines follow one general rule; a sweet dessert requires an even sweeter wine. Treats that diverge from this rule include fruit, or fruity desserts, which require a wine high in acidity and chocolate treats that go best with port.
Cheesecake is a dessert savored by millions. Although it seems strange that this sweet concoction would go well with an even sweeter drink, this combination is known to work best.
Wines like the Oloroso sherry, Madeira, and ruby port match extremely well with cheesecake. Chocolate can be served with port or wines that have hints of chocolate buried in their layers of flavor, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Crème Brulee served with creamy sherry, Madeira or sweet Muscat becomes even more enjoyable.
Fruit and sparkling wine or Champagne is known to be a good pairing while Tiramisu is better matched with sweet sherry , ruby port, and sparkling wines.
If wine is used in a dessert, such as the Marsala in a Zabaglione, the same wine can be served to enhance flavors.
Ethnic Cuisine Pairings
Chinese food is often grouped into four categories but a peppery wine such as Gewurztraminer tends to work well in each of these areas.
Full bodied wines are important for this type of cuisine because of the many flavors incorporated into each dish.
Unoaked Chardonnay, semi dry Riesling and young Sauvignon Blancs are also appropriate choices for this cuisine.
For dishes that include pork or chicken, a rich Zinfandel or Beaujolais can be served.
Fusion or Pacific Rim cuisine has so many elements from different cultures that a general assumption about wine pairings is difficult to make.
Each dish should be taken into consideration in its own regard and the ingredients and spices of that dish should be the deciding factors of the wine selection.
Indian cuisine is also grouped into different categories, but common threads in these dishes allow white wines like the Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Pinot Gris and sparkling roses to be good general picks.
Red wines like a Shiraz or Syrah or a grassy, vibrant Zinfandel are good options. Most Indian cuisine is rich in flavor so a hefty wine with lots of body is usually best.
Japanese food is often salty so a semi sweet, or off dry Riesling or white Zinfandel can work well. Sparkling wine is also an option to consider when it comes to the delicate flavors of Japenese cuisine.
Red wine is a surprisingly good accompaniment to Mexican food.
Although spicy or chili based foods have been traditionally thought of as “beer foods”, wines with fresh flavors also work well with these dishes.
Mexican food also goes well with red wines like Zinfandel, Merlot, light Pinot Noirs, and Cabernet Sauvignons for dishes with hints of chocolate.
These wines also pair well with Southwestern U.S. or Tex-Mex foods.
Cambodian, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cuisine can surprise the palate with occasional firecracker flavors that go best with unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and fresh Zinfandel and Merlots.
Thai food has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years and can include a variety of ingredients, ranging from chilies to coconut milk, that make it difficult to pair.
Try enjoying this type of cuisine with an Oregon Pinot Gris, a peppery Gewurztraminer, or a lively Sauvignon Blanc.
Although some foods may seem too strange or difficult for a good wine pairing, keep an open mind and experiment to find those truly unique combinations that stimulate your palate.
Fish and Shellfish Pairings
Heavier sauced seafood tends to work well with red wines although lightly grilled entrees are still best served with white wine.
Anchovies, for example, would go well with a Sauvignon Blanc or Spanish sherry.
Foods that can be prepared in more than one way should be paired with complimenting wines.
For example, fried calamari is best served with a fruity wine such as a Chenin Blanc or Pinot Grigio while calamari with tomato sauce would go best with a Sauvignon Blanc.
Although caviar has traditionally been served with Champagne, an unoaked Chardonnay would also serve to bring out the rich textures and layers of flavor of caviar.
Clams that have been steamed go exceptionally well with a white Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc or dry rose wine.
Clams served with creamy sauces tend to require more acidic wines such as the Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet. Clams with wine sauce can be taken with the same wine that’s been used in the sauce to enhance the flavors of the meal altogether.
Different kinds of fish also benefit from different wines.
The flounder, for example, would be best served with an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay while the Halibut goes better with a Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, or Chardonnay.
Lobster, on the other hand, when broiled, is best served with a Burgundy or Chardonnay.
All other methods of serving do well with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Muscles are another treat that can be served many ways. In steamed form, they go best with a dry Riesling, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Blanc. In a cream sauce, mussels are best served with lightly oaked Chardonnays or Rieslings.
Oysters can be served with a dry Riesling or a good sparkling wine.
They also tend to enhance the flavors in an unoaked Suavignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir when served in raw form.
Salmon always goes best with red wine. If it must be white, consider a slightly oaky Chardaonnay.
Tuna is another fish that can benefit from a read wine such as a Rhone or lively Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, or Merlot. Buttery Chardonnays also tend to do well with this hearty fish.
Game is traditionally served with red Burgundy from France but, as with beef, herb and sauce considerations must be made.
Roasted wild duck, for example, matches exceptionally well with Syrah or Merlot. Stuffing is another aspect to the wine pairing challenge and quail is one game bird that usually does well with red wines such as the Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Merlot.
Depending on the stuffing, white wines such as an oaky Chardonnay can also work well with quail.
Keep in mind to balance the heft of the meal with the taste of the wine as to make sure neither is overpowered.
Rabbit is not as bold a meat as many others, hence try Chianti or red Burgundy.
Rabbit in mustard sauce goes better with white wines like the Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc.
Hearty meats like venison need a bold, full bodied red wine like the Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lamb and wines made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape varieties have traditionally matched very well together.
The Spanish serve lamb with Rioja, but the Californian Zinfandel and the Washington Merlot work just as well with this meat. Lamb is one of those meats that tends to work well with all wines, however, specific wines can do a great deal to enhance certain meals.
Barbecued lamb in the kabob style does very well with lively flavored wines like the Cabernet Franc or Shiraz. The spices work well with the bustling flavors in the wines.
Broiled lamb, on the other hand, does better with Zinfandel, healthy Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Riojas. Lamb chops go better with aged wines.
Try serving this dish with Spanish Rioja, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
Although meat such as lamb does well with wines, sometimes sauces such as the classic mint sauce that is served with this dish, will spoil all attempts at pairing.
Otherwise, roast lamb does well with aged Bordeaux or very good Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lamb shanks often have many added flavors that match superbly with Spanish Rioja, Rhone reds, or hearty Zinfandels. Boldly flavored stews work well with Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel.
More delicately flavored lamb stews work better with Merlot or Syrah.
More acidic wines tend to do well with cheese and tomato sauces.
Try a read wine with cheese and a crisp white for tomato.
Pesto sauce is best served with a healthy red wine such as Docetto or Beaujolais. Fruity Zinfandels also work well with the herbs involved in pesto sauce.
Alfredo sauces are a good match with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Sancerre.
With macaroni and cheese, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon compliment well.
Pasta Primavera, on the other hand, is often paired with Grigio or Viognier wines.
Pizza can also be paired well with wine. Different toppings on the pizza call for different wines. Pepperoni, for example, goes well with Barbera or Chianti, while vegetarian pizzas work better with just the Chianti.
Pork is a more difficult meat to pair with wine because of its sweet tendencies. Spices associated with pork dishes are also difficult to pair.
However, pork dishes generally do well with red or white young, slightly acidic wines without much tannin.
Fruit flavors in wine can also compliment the sweetness of pork.
Baked ham dishes are best matched with an off-dry Riesling or a lively Merlot with fruity tendencies.
Barbecued pork is often spicy so a chilled Zinfandel or semi-dry Riesling tend to balance these flavors.
Pork chops have a hefty flavor and hence, are best paired with full bodied wines like the Pinot Noir or the Shiraz. Dried Italian or Spanish ham is well paired with dry roses or flavorfull reds.
In roast form, pork can be heavy and overwhelming for lighter wines.
Try a Pinot Noir or full structured Rhone to bring balance to this meal.
Poultry is a meat that can be enjoyed with either red or white wines. Certainly an easier candidate for pairing, poultry takes exceptionally well to certain wines. Roasted chicken, for example, can go well with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Depending on the amount and variety of seasonings, chicken can also be matched with Merlot or light Shiraz wines. Spicier chicken curry will work better with Gewurztraminer or dry sparkling wine. Mustard and tarragon sauces included in the dishes require light wines such as Cabernet Franc or oaky Chardonnays to be considered.
Wine is a great partner for even fried foods. Fried chicken goes best with dry rose or fruity Sauvignon Blanc wines.
With wine sauces, the same rule as with other meats applies. Always pair a better version of the wine used in the sauce for drinking.
Domestic duck needs a less intense wine such as Merlot, Chianti or Chardonnay because of its more delicate and sweet contrast to wild duck.
Goose is a richer type of poultry than others and, by itself, matches well with red Burgundy. When served in its traditional form, with sweet side dishes, goose goes well with German Riesling or California Pinot Noir.
Turkey has a slight sweetness to its meat and therefore requires a fruity Zinfandel for a good balance. Be sure white wine is cooled to the right temperature.
With salad and wine pairings it is best to keep in mind that simple salads, especially those with vinegar based dressings, do not pair well with wines. However, other salads such as caesar, nicoise, seafood, or spinach, can benefit immensely from a good selection.
Generally, dressings and meats used in the salad are an important consideration for the wine selection.
Caesar salad does well with sparkling wine whiles the tuna in nicoise works better with a dry rose wine. Seafood salads benefit from the company of a Californian Chardonnay or a white Burgundy from France.
Spinach salad works well with young Sauvignon Blancs or a very dry sparkling rose Keep in mind that the best way to enjoy salad and wine is to have a wine based dressing for your salad.
Salads with croutons and toasted nuts tend to work well with oaky wines. In general, keep in mind that similar flavors and textures will work better together.
Although it seems more foreign than matching wine with meat or fish, matching vegetables goes by the same rules and guidelines covered before.
Vegetables and wines tend to compliment each other easily for most cases and the different textures of various vegetables match different wines.
The avocado, for example, requires a young Sauvignon Blanc or Verdicchio to compliment the fatty layers of texture in this vegetable.
Beans and lentils can be paired with red or white wines such as the fruity red Shiraz, a French Beaujolais, or a good Merlot. White wines that go well with these veggies include the Riesling or Pinot Grigio.
Eggplant is best with a dry rose or light reds while corn is complimented by the textures of creamy Chardonnays.
Hummus, a popular Mediterranean dish made from smashed chick-peas, goes well with fresh, sharp tasting wines like the Albarino or a dry Chenin Blanc.
Mushrooms and sauces with mushrooms often go well with Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Beaujolais.
Black truffles must be enjoyed with an expensive, first rate Champagne or sparkling wine. Other options include Syrah or Rhone wines while white truffles are better matched with red Burgundys and Barolos.
Although asparagus is difficult to pair and might work well with an oaky Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, the artichoke is completely impossible to pair well with any wine.