Dinner parties create anxieties: who to invite, what to serve and, if you’re a guest, what to bring. For many people, the wine is the last thing to consider, and thus the rules for food and wine pairing. It’s often said that the convention of not serving red wine with fish is outdated. But that is only half right. The young tannins of sturdy reds react with white fish to give the wine an unpleasant metallic taste. Yet a less tannic, or more mature red, combined with a meatier fish like salmon or tuna works very well.
And whites can be served with more than the fish course. White Bordeaux offers great pleasure with chicken or light pasta dishes. The creamy Semillon combines with the freshness of the Sauvignon to balance any dish with a white sauce. Fuller wines made from white Grenache in Spain, Pinot Gris in Alsace, Chenin Blanc from the Loire and tangy Alvarinhos from Portugal have the weight and viscosity to stand up to many foods. In this category, southern French Viognier is exceptional with seafood. But watch out for the exotic Condrieu: it’s a show-stealer. If a fine wine is the star of the meal it’s best to keep the food simple. The same holds for complex reds. A classed growth Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy needs only a good piece of meat or a high-protein vegetarian dish.
In some cases, food can balance a wine. The slightly bitter note that follows the cherry flavours in a Chianti Classico is immediately tamed by a salty black olive. It’s as if they were made for each other. And of course they were—at one time wines were made and drunk to accompany locally available foods. It’s because we now have easy access to wines from all around the world that we are obliged us to learn anew what was once second nature.
The English have an obsession with consuming claret with cheese. The French have long seen through the error of this habit. Acidity is generally higher in whites than in reds and it is that which complements the sharp acidity in most cheeses. Almost any white wine with any cheese is better than the distorting effect of a soft cheese on red Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc is particularly good. But if you insist on claret, make sure the cheese is hard.
The best cheese and red wine combinations are regional: a ripe Époisse with a Côte de Nuits Burgundy, or a sweet Sauterne or Tokaji with a blue cheese like Stilton. Avoid the French habit of combining Sauterne with foie gras: both are rich and the effect is overkill. Contrast is all, and the sweet-salt balance reaches perfection when combining a golden Château Climens from Barsac with a salty mouthful of Roquefort.
For Asian dishes, white sparkling wines or Moscatels are excellent with Chinese cuisine. Indian food, we are told, needs aromatic whites like Riesling or Gerwurztraminer, yet oaky and buttery reds from Rioja, or Australian Shiraz are a good match for ghee-rich curries. Oil and water don’t mix, which is why rinsing the mouth from your water glass between bites of spicy food doesn’t seem to cool the tongue. The next time you eat a delicious forkful of curry, have a sip of Rioja and notice how well it restores the balance in the mouth.
Finally, as a guest, what wine should you bring? The top tip is to bring a bottle of sparkling; your hosts will probably start with it. Don’t bother with Champagne unless it’s a special occasion. A Crémant from Alsace, the Loire, or Burgundy will do. Sparkling wines from Brazil are not far behind and are better than the ubiquitous Prosecco. Meanwhile, hosts, to match the sparkling wines, shavings of Parmesan will flatter and strawberry will sweeten it.