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If you're a cook with some flair (i.e. someone who instinctively knows to add a dash of this or a pinch of that), then you should apply your talent to wine choice by thinking "does it need something with bite, acidity, sweetness, unctuousness or whatever?"
If you decide you want to complement or contrast, go for it. If a touch of lemon juice would improve a dish then try a tart Chenin or Chardonnay. And if dry chicken could use an unctuous sauce then don't serve a bone dry white or red, serve something sweeter and richer. Use the full spectrum of wine to fit your taste ideas; everything from port through to fizz!
If you want to play by the rules ... There are, of course, tried and trusted food and wine matches that are worth hanging on to.
Take a rib of beef, for example, roasted until it’s nicely browned on the outside and still pink inside. Then reach for a decent red Bordeaux or California Cabernet – something with a bit of tannic grip – and it still amazes me how the wine comes alive with layers of flavor, as does the savoriness of the beef. In Bordeaux vineyards they love their steaks grilled over vine cuttings – washed down, of course, with claret. That’s a combination that’s been proven for hundreds of years.
If you like your steaks with a well-seasoned, char-grilled crust you could easily move to a smoky Zinfandel (from California, naturally) or a barrel-aged Syrah. Australian regions like the Barossa Valley or McClaren Vale will do nicely; French fans should head for the northern Rhône Valley; in Argentina they will insist on a rich, local Malbec).
Lamb is sweeter than beef, and the wine that’s pitch-perfect to deal with that nuance of flavor is a ripe, plummy Merlot from the USA or, for the traditionally-minded, a Saint-Emilion. Mature Rioja Reserva also works well.
Pinot Noir works a treat with pheasant, venison or quail. The more powerful and evolved the wine, the better it will match stronger, gamier flavors, especially if the dish features wild mushrooms or truffles. Italian Barolo and Barbaresco (from the Nebbiolo grape) also come into the frame here.
For weekday burgers (lamb or beef) Chile has a wealth of great value Cabernets, Merlots or local specialty Carmenère (reminds me of an untamed, brambly Merlot).
If you’re serving chicken or turkey, aim for a red that’s on the lighter side (good quality Beaujolais from the villages of Fleurie, Moulin-á-Vent and Juliénas are as good as the Gamay grape gets). Here’s where a good Monterey Chardonnay will come into its own too, especially if it has the richness of a bit of oak behind it.
Common sense will tell you that Italian reds go with meaty pasta dishes like a hearty Bolognese or lasagne. Chianti has a lick of acidity that cuts through rich, meaty flavors.
... and what goes with the fish? Away from meat dishes, fish in general go well with zingy whites, but pay attention to the sauce. Buttery or creamy sauces work with rich, buttery Chardonnays – Sonoma and Burgundy would give you plenty of choice.
Oily fish (bonito, trout, salmon, sardines) go well with weighty Alsace Pinot Blanc, Australian Riesling, and bone dry Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
For shrimp, stay with Sauvignon (especially New Zealand); with oysters, Chablis; for lobster it’s worth uncorking a great Napa Chardonnay, or a top village Burgundy.
Then ... try breaking the rules!
Never be scared of the unconventional — upside down can work! The most memorable cheese matches have been with white, not red wines. Cold Sancerre straight from the cask with new, still warm goat's cheese ... Gewurztraminer with a lethal Munster ... sweet Muscat with oily Roquefort. They've been drinking Sauternes after dinner with cheese for years in Bordeaux. Similarly the Germans will show you that semi-sweet Riesling is more than happy to accompany heavy, red meat dishes.
Confusing in some ways, this wine and food business, but the main thing is practice — and who wouldn’t enjoy that? You've got to put in the hours, armed only with corkscrew, knife and fork — but the rewards will come when peak performance is achieved. Happy tasting!