It Doesn't Have To Be Rocket Science

Most Americans are still daunted by the prospect of choosing the "right" wine, and nowhere more than in fancy restaurants.  In the high-stakes world of haute dining, the wrong wine choice can result in loss of face and shirt.

In short, wine, like sex, is cheaper and safer at home.  And also a good deal more casual, it turns out.

The question is, what to serve chez vous?  I recently polled some professional winos and foodies of my acquaintance as to what they drink with dinner when they're off duty, at home with their mates and offspring.  They gave me combinations like mu shu pork with cheap white Gravesi, roasted chicken with Beaujolais, braised lamb shanks with grenache-based Rhone wines.  Unfortunately, when I asked these experts for the principles behind their preferences, they merely replied, "I don't know, it just tastes good to me."

As creative young sommeliers will be the first to tell you, pairing food and wine is  just as often an art as a science.  There are no immutable rules:  if you like it enough to want it again, it's a successful combination.  Still, if you take a moment to consider a wine's flavors, texture, weight and level of acidity, you'll improve your odds of success.

The age-old pairings found in regional cuisines are more than cliched coincidence:  certain foods and wines share affinities bred by their common origin.  For instance, classic Chablis is literally grown on chalky soil made of decomposed sea shells, so it's no accident that this wine works magic with raw oysters.  By the same token, pungent, grassy Sancerre ultimately derives from the same dirt as that town's pungent, grassy chevres.  The herbal scents featured in Provencal cooking--thyme, rosemary, olive--resonate in the region's red wines.

If there's one characteristic most versatile food wines share, it's crisp acidity.  Fresh acids cleanse the palate by cutting through fish oil, fatty meat, cream sauces.  Although I generally prefer completely dry wines with my meal, slightly sweet examples can be equally satisfying with many dishes, provided the sweetness is held in check by the vibrancy of juicy acids.  Tannic wines, on the other hand, seem best suited for meat, highly seasoned fowl, or dry, salty cheeses.

One more cheering fact about adaptable food wines:  they're also usually the most accessible.  Forget about the fancy labels and the 20-year-old bottles.  Forget the tannic, oaky, high-octane monsters.  The truth is that the lighter, simpler meals most of us cook at home are better served by a host of young and generally inexpensive wines.  And if you can't find a good Cotes du Rhone red or New Zealand sauvignon blanc in your wine rack, you'll find current vintages all over retail shelves--or in this monthly feature.