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How to Navigate a Wine List

Even the most confident of wine lovers can get bogged down by a wine list that reads like a novel. Here’s how to safely navigate a restaurant wine-list and pick a bottle that’s sure to please everyone at the table.

Step 1: Choose a Color

Start by choosing between white or red by considering what you’ll be eating. You’re out to dinner, after all: the most important thing is that your wine complements your food. But feel free to throw that old “red wine with red meat, white wine with chicken and fish” adage out the window. A better method is to base your wine decision on your dish’s most prominent flavor. A chicken breast simply poached in white wine, for example, calls for a white wine that won’t overpower the flavor. The same chicken breast topped with a Marsala sauce, with its reduced wine and hearty mushrooms, is bold enough to stand up to a red.

Step 2: Balancing Act

Next, consider the heartiness of the dish you’re eating: the dish and the wine should match each other in body or richness. One of the best ways to do this is to consider your sauce. The simple buttery, garlic-y wine sauce in a bowl of linguini with clams plays well with a white wine with some heft, like a California Chardonnay. A pasta primavera with a simpler olive oil-based sauce, however, needs the lighter touch of something like a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Step 3: Match like Flavors

Here’s where you can get really creative. You can match the flavors and aromas in a wine to ingredients in your dish. A dish spiked with verdant cilantro, for example, can go well with a white wine with herbal, grassy notes. A steak topped with a sauce studded with currants would pair perfectly with a Cabernet rich with berry flavors.

Step 4: Think about Structure

The perfect pairing will result in a food and wine match that’s perfectly in balance. Certain components of the food you’re eating can  increase or lessen the acidity, sweetness, and bitterness of  the wine you choose.

Acidic ingredients like citrus juice pair well with acidic wines, making them taste softer and better-balanced. However, if a wine is already balanced, acidic foods can make it fall flat. Likewise, the tannins in a wine interact with the fatty flavors in a dish. Rich foods like steak diminish the appearance of tannins in wine and make it taste smoother. Salty and spicy foods, on the other hand, interact poorly with tannins, and can make a wine taste harsh.

With these four steps, you’ll be able to successfully choose a wine to pair with any dish on the table. But as with all things wine, we encourage you not to feel limited. If you don’t like red wine, don’t let that stop you from ordering that porterhouse. After all, what matters most is that you enjoy yourself. Choose a wine you’d drink by itself, and you’ll always be happy.

See our recommendations for local San Diego shops that carry the wines we love!