Forget the adage that red wine should be served with meat and white wine is for fish. Today's savvy hosts know that that rule applies only in a few special cases. For instance, be sure to serve white wine with fish if it's an oilier fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies), since the fat in the fish will only bring out the less desirable tannic acid flavours found in red wine. Likewise, although the red, rosy colours of meats like beef and lamb are visually complemented by the colour of red wine, there are plenty of times when a white wine will make as good (or even a better) match for red meat.
So, if all the old rules are out the window how should a conscientious host match the menu and the wine successfully? Follow these guidelines.
1 Choose the wine based on the strongest flavour on the plate. The wine and the strongest flavour need to be of similar strength or one will overpower the other. Generally, alcohol content is a good guide to determining a wine's strength. Wines with alcohol contents above 10 per cent are generally full-bodied (no matter what colour they are) and will complement stronger flavoured foods. Likewise if the wine is grown in a warm region (Australia, California, Southern France) it's likely to have higher alcohol content and to be fruity and assertive in flavour. (Conversely wines produced at northern latitudes are generally lighter, more delicate and higher in acidity, making them better matches for mild tasting foods.)
2 Dry wines that may be too puckering to quaff alone are often good matches for salty dishes that contain ingredients like olives or anchovies.
3 Spicy foods require fuller bodied, fruitier wines to temper their fire. That said, consider beer as an alternative to wine if serving spicy Indian or Mexican foods.
4 Tomato-based dishes can be highly acidic, so go for lighter bodied reds like the ones from Northern Italy or Canada's Niagara region to accentuate the sweetness of the tomatoes.
5 Off-dry wines (wines that have just a hint of sweetness) or wines that are sweet and woodsy-edged like chardonnay usually compliment creamy dishes nicely.
6 Asian dishes with a sweet and sour flavour need off-dry wine matches like Riesling, Vouvray or even a chilled fortified wine like sherry.
7 Young, astringent red wines are a great match for fatty meats such as duck, lamb or goose, since the acid in the wine will cut through the rich finish of such meats.
8 At dessert, choose either a white or red dessert wine but be sure that the wine is sweeter than the food to avoid accentuating the wine's acidity.
9 If you're serving more than one wine during a meal, match the main course with a wine first. Then, structure the wine list so that you serve lighter, younger wines before older, more full-bodied wines.
10 When in doubt or when the menu is eclectic or people will be eating different things (like at a buffet), opt for a dry champagne. Champagne goes with almost every food and is acceptably served at any time of day.
Dana McCauley is author of Pantry Raid: Out of the Cupboard Cooking (Whitecap 2002).