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Tips for pairing wine with common menu items

Tips for pairing wine with common menu items

When it comes to creating wine and food pairings at home, the key is keeping it simple. But restaurant menus are often more complex. In addition to menu interpretation, there’s the time issue as the server awaits your order.

Most fine-dining establishments offer wine and food pairing suggestions, but if you find yourself on your own, here are some tips for pairing wine with common menu items. 


It’s rare to find unadorned chicken on a restaurant menu, so for a successful pairing, consider the sauce and cooking method. A dish such as roast chicken with mushrooms in a Madeira sauce will call for a full-bodied red wine such as shiraz or a medium-bodied pinot noir.


  • 2014 Yalumba Y Series Shiraz, Australia (about $13 retail)


  • 2013 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, California (about $24 retail)


When we think of wine and fish pairings, most of us think of white wines. But a dish like grilled halibut with garlic sauce is much more than mild white fish on a plate. For the ideal pairing, the cooking technique of grilling will add a much more earthy and smoky component. Because of the robust flavors the grill adds and the garlic in the sauce, consider merlot or pinot noir, if you’re in the mood for red. But as with most fish dishes, chardonnay is always a safe match.


  • 2014 BV Coastal Pinot Noir, California (about $12 retail)


  • 2013 Left Coast Cellars Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $24 retail)


If one ingredient in a salad overpowers the others, match your wine to that ingredient. If there is shrimp, crab or tuna, a sauvignon blanc or rosé would pair best. Salads with meats follow the same as most dishes, keeping in mind a light red such as a pinot noir may be the better pairing. For a lettuce wedge with smoky bacon mustard dressing, pinot noir or rosé would be ideal.


  • 2014 Bell Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $17 retail)


  • 2014 Anne Amie Huntington Hill Rosé, Oregon (about $19 retail)

The best wine goes in glass, not the pan

Cooking with WineThere are countless rules surrounding wine, but one of my least favorites is the old-fashioned guidance, “Always cook with the same wine you will be drinking.” I remember the first time the rule struck me as one I would not be following in my kitchen. I was making beef stew and the recipe instructed me to add two cups of red wine. It just happened the wine I was serving and had opened for dinner was a beautifully aged Bordeaux. I could not convince myself to pour half of my bottle into the pot. Thus beginning my exploration of wine being used as a cooking ingredient.

Many cooks have experimented using different wines (ranging from the least expensive to super premium) in the same recipe. Generally the results were similar, but with a few notable exceptions. Wines in lowest price range tend to be either slightly sweet or bland and generally imparted these characteristics to the final dish. Premium wines tend to be very flavorful but lose their nuance as they cook. In general the best wines to cook with fall in the middle, $8 to $12 wines with simple flavors and aromas.

Be cautious of using grocery store “cooking wine,” as it tends to have additional additives and excessive salt and likely will change the taste of a recipe calling for red or white wine.

When faced with the typical vague instruction “2 cups dry white wine” or “1 cup red wine,” opt for a dry style unless the recipe is specific in listing a sweet wine as an ingredient. However, if a wine label reads “fruity,” this does not mean sweet. A safe white wine is chardonnay, and for reds, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir are good options.

A wine that is often overlooked is dry vermouth. Most famous for its role in martinis, this dry white wine has been steeped with various spices, herbs and seasonings. It’s known as the chef’s secret because it adds interesting lightly spicy hints to sauces.

The longer the dish is cooking, the more of the wine’s character is lost. For long-simmering dishes, the specific wine is less important than one for a quick saute. Also consider the color. White wine is generally used in most stocks and sauces because the red wine would change the color of the food.

If you are concerned about alcohol, it is important to note that alcohol boils at about 178 degrees, so if you are braising, boiling, or cooking the food for a prolonged period most of the alcohol will evaporate off. In briefly cooked dishes, as much as 85 percent of the alcohol may remain.

My advice is to follow the guidelines, but save your best bottle of wine for your glass and not the cooking pan.

Rich salmon puts more wine in play

Over the years my father-in-law, husband and son have become experts in Alaska’s salmon fishing. As any fisherman knows, expertise in catching fish leads to much practice in cooking it. Our freezer is packed with this rich, nutritious fish, so we are always experimenting with sauces, spices and cooking methods and, of course, wine pairings.

The delicate flavors of many fish simply can’t stand up to most wines. So the traditional rule when it comes to fish is to stick with light-bodied wines. However, salmon’s meatier texture and bold flavor allows for more choices.

Matching pinot noir with salmon breaks all the stuffy wine-pairing rules and proves fish and red wine can be harmonious. The low tannins and fruitiness of pinot noir accentuate the fatty richness of salmon, especially when it’s grilled.

Lemon often accompanies salmon. To highlight the lemon, pairing the dish with tangy sauvignon blanc is one of my favorite combinations. The acid in the wine and lemon actually work together to tone down what you would think would be an acidic overdose. This is particularly true for salmon with a lemon and dill sauce.

Many styles of chardonnay have the weight to stand up to the substantial texture of salmon. The key is avoiding styles that are high-alcohol, oaky blockbusters.

Riesling is a safe bet with salmon because of its distinct acidity. Many salmon recipes call for Asian and spicy flavors — soy, chile pepper, ginger or even wasabi — making Riesling an ideal and refreshing fit.


2011 446 Single Vineyard Monterey Chardonnay, California (about $12 retail) 2011 Cline Cellars Cool Climate Sonoma Pinot Noir, California (about $14 retail) 2011 Concha y Toro Xplorador Chardonnay, Chile (about $10 retail) 2011 BR Cohn Silver Label Chardonnay, California (about $17 retail) 2011 Firesteed Riesling, Oregon (about $15 retail)


2011 Anne Amie Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $20 retail)

2010 Bridlewood Estate Pinot Noir, California (about $20 retail)

2009 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $46 retail)

2010 Dierberg Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay, California (about $34 retail)

Bubbly suggestions to go with bird

Finding the ideal Thanksgiving wine can be hit or miss, with an array of flavors — turkey, coconut fruit salad, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes — all vying for the spotlight. With all of these dishes competing for the grandeur, it’s asking a lot for a single wine to match perfectly with all of our Thanksgiving favorites. So when it comes to Thanksgiving wine, think versatility.

There are many wines that can manage this clash of food flavors, weights and textures. Sparkling wine and Champagne are among the most versatile, and popping a bottle of bubbly is the ideal start for your Thanksgiving Day celebration. These wines work not only for toasting but have more food-friendly characteristics than other wines, allowing you to serve them throughout appetizers, dinner and even dessert.

But if non-bubbly is desired, there are options.

For white wines, Riesling is always a favorite, with its dry, light refreshing characteristics. This grape produces many styles and levels of sweetness. Choose a German “Kabinett” or dry style from California or Australia to better complement the food flavors. Gewurztraminer’s light-bodied texture and spicy taste is a good match for the range of flavors on a buffet table. A tried and true expression of this grape is produced in France’s Alsace region, with an aromatic, clean, light-bodied style.

The key when choosing a red wine is selecting a wine with low amounts of tannin. Pinot noir, Syrah and merlot are excellent accompaniments.


  • NV Gruet Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine, New Mexico (about $25 retail)
  • 2007 Hayman & Hill Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, California (about $14 retail)
  • 2009 Rosemount Riesling, Australia (about $10 retail)
  • 2007 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge, France (about $18 retail)
  • 2008 Estancia Pinot Noir, California (about $16 retail)


  • 2008 St. Supery Napa Valley Merlot, California (about $34 retail)
  • NV Jean Laurent Blanc de Blanc Champagne, France (about $55 retail)
  • NV Argyle Brut Sparkling Wine, California (about $35 retail)
  • 2007 Hugel Gewurztraminer, France (about $34 retail)
  • 2006 Bell Big Guy Red, California (about $26 retail)

Seafood’s heft influences wine choice

Pairing wine and fish continues to be woefully misunderstood. The old notion of only “white wines with fish” continues to sow confusion. It’s important to remember that not all fish is created equal, so consider a few tips to finding the perfect match.

As with all wine pairings, start with the “weight” of the food. We aren’t referring to pounds and ounces but to the richness, texture and fat. Consider the many types of seafood and the array of textures and weights. You can compare the hearty weight of salmon, tuna or sea bass to lighter filets of flounder or tilapia, or the rich taste of lobster versus the delicacy of an oyster or scallop.

The seafood can also change weight depending on the sauces or toppings accompanying the dish. Pairing a bare oyster with champagne is ideal, but the same wine will not compete with the rich and powerful Oysters Rockefeller.

The cooking method can also influence the choice of wine. Sauces that use a cream base will need a wine with high acidity to compete. Rose, Rieslings and sauvignon blanc all have the acidic backbone to withstand the richness of the cream. Fried seafood needs a wine that cuts through the oil and batter: think chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or semillon.

Crab: Riesling or chardonnay

  • 2009 Jacobs Creek Reserve Riesling, Australia (about $15 retail)

Salmon: Pinot noir or pinot gris

  • 2008 Gnarly Head Pinot Noir, California (about $12 retail)

Striped Bass: Merlot or chardonnay

  • 2008 Yalumba Y Series Merlot, Australia (about $13 retail)

Lobster: Chardonnay or pinot noir

  • 2008 Spann Vineyards Chardonnay/Viognier, California (about $20 retail)

Mahi Mahi: Pinot noir or semillon

  • 2008 Peter Lehmann Semillon, Australia (about $13 retail)

Oysters: Champagne or unoaked chardonnay

  • 2008 Chandon Unoaked Chardonnay, California (about $20 retail)

Mussels: Riesling or albarino

  • 2008 Martin Codax Albarino, Spain (about $18 retail)