Fortunately, most wines improve most meals, so even if you don't know wine from Windex the odds are that whatever wine is chosen will improve your dinner. However, a familiarity with some basic wine types and a few principles of pairing these wine types with food can eliminate the occasional disaster that the dart-throwing method of wine selection provides.
Balance is the key to pairing food and wine. Neither the food nor the wine should overwhelm the other with intensity of flavor. Thus, a zinfandel or port should probably be avoided when fillet of sole in champagne sauce is served. Similarily, a light, mildly flavored Italian white wine such as soave might not be much of a complement to venison in a green peppercorn, garlic and chili pepper sauce. Choose a savory, intensely flavored wine to accompany a dish of the same description and serve a light, mildly flavored wine with a light, mildly flavored dish.
Listed here are some major wine types by degree of flavor intensity to assist in choosing a wine that will match the intensity of the food being prepared. Needless to say, in deciding whether a dish is strongly flavored, the sauce must be considered. For instance, chicken breast prepared in a delicate champagne sauce would require milder flavored wine than if it were prepared with the green peppercorn, garlic and chili pepper sauce previously mentioned.
This classification of wines by intensity of flavor is of necessity a very general guide, and there always will be specific examples of the various wines listed that would fit in another taste category. Your palate must be the final judge. White Wines
Light intensity: Sylvaner or pinot blanc from Alsace; muscadet and gros plant from the Loire; entre-deux-mers, bordeaux and bordeaux supe'rieur from Bordeaux; vernaccia, verdiccio, orvieto, frascati, pinot grigio, trebbiano and soave from Italy; many jug white wines.
Medium intensity: The milder flavored riesling from Alsace; vouvray; co tes du rho ne and co tes du rho ne villages, bourgogne blanc, st. veran, mac on blanc, pouilly-fuisse', ma con-villages, mercurey, rully and ordinary chablis from burgundy; mild flavored graves from bordeaux; German kabinett, certain chenin blancs and the milder flavored sauvignon blancs and fume' blancs from California.
Intensely flavored/assertive: Sancerre and pouilly fume' from Loire; strongly flavored graves from Bordeaux; premie r and grand cru white burgundy (including grand cru chablis) in superb years; white cha teauneuf-du-pape, hermitage, crozes-hermitage and condrieu from the Rho ne; gewurtztraminer, riesling, muscat and pinot gris from Alsace; chardonnay and certain strongly flavored sauvignon blancs or fume' blancs from California. Red Wines
Light intensity: Pinot noir from Alsace; saumur, chinon and bourgueil, and st. nicolas-de-bourgueil from the Loire; valpolicella and bardolino from Italy; certain light beaujolais, beaujolais supe'rieur and beaujolais villages; many light "jug" reds.
Medium Intensity: Fuller flavored beaujolais, beaujolais villages and grand cru beaujolais; burgundy of ordinary quality (often labeled co tes de nuits, co tes du beaune, fixin, gevrey-chambertin, morey-st.-denis, chambolle-musigny, vosne-romane'e, nuits-st.-georges, pernand-vergelesses, aloxe-corton, beaune, pommard, volnay, santenay, givry, mercurey or rully); bordeaux of ordinary quality (often labeled me'doc, haut me'doc, graves, moulis, listrac, bourg, blaye, st. emilion or pomerol); milder flavored co tes du rho ne and co tes du rho ne villages; average chianti, barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo from Italy; pinot noir and petite syrah from California; rioja from Spain; cabernet sauvignon from South America and Eastern Europe.
Intensely flavored/assertive: cha teauneuf du pape, co te ro tie, hermitage, crozes-hermitage and cornas from the Rho ne; wines from the great Bordeaux cha teaux in good years; wines from the great Burgundy vineyards in good years; barolo, amarone, brunello di montalcino and great chianti from Italy; certain better estates from the rioja region in Spain; cabernet sauvignon and zinfindel from California.
In addition to a general notion of matching the intensity of the wine with the intensity of the food, there are some further, more specific principles that are useful.
The maxim "white wine with fish, red wine with meat" is only half true. Red wine indeed should generally be avoided with fish. Red wine has tannin, which reacts with substances in the flesh of the fish to cause a bitter or metallic flavor in the mouth. If red wine is a must, try cooking and serving the fish in a strong tomato and red wine sauce to lessen these unpleasant flavors.
While fish almost always calls for white wine, meat does not automatically call for a red wine. Certainly a strong, savory, protein-rich red meat or spicy game dish calls for a vigorous, intensely flavored red wine to match, but another type of meat, such as chicken breast or veal in a delicate white wine sauce, might find a better companion in a white burgundy. Thus, revert back to the first principle stated -- match the intensity of the flavor of the wine to the intensity of flavor of the food it is to accompany.
Another principle is that extremely tart and dry wines tend to go well with salty tasting foods -- hence champagne with caviar and muscadet or chablis with oysters. As an addition to this list, try a good German kabinett wine with ham. A good German wine at the drier end of the spectrum, such as kabinett, will have enough flavor to match that of the ham and sufficient acidity to conterbalance the saltiness.
Another principle is never to serve a dry wine with a sweet food. The sugar in the food will accentuate the acidity in the wine, making the wine taste sour. For the same reason, desserts should always be less sweet than the accompanying wine.
The order of service of wines is also important. In general, serve lighter, more subtle and delicate wines and dishes early in the meal while the palate can still appreciate them, and rich, heavy, strongly flavored wines and foods later. If wine must be served with the salad course, please use lemon juice instead of vinegar in the dressing; vinegar completely destroys the taste of wine.
An important aspect of choosing wine to accompany a meal is deciding whether to emphasize the wine or the food -- you cannot emphasize both. If the main point of the evening is the food, err slightly on the side of having the wine less strongly flavored and less distinctive than the food. If, on the other hand, you wish to show off your wines, select foods that do not compete with the wines for the guests' attention.
When serving a truly great wine, serve it with only cheese -- the classic companion to wine. Here are some traditional wine and cheese affinities to bear in mind:
A full-flavored che vre is well matched by a pungent sancerre or pouilly fume' from the Loire River Valley in France. The traditional companion to English stilton cheese is vintage port (don't forget the walnuts), and roquefort is often served with sweet sauternes. I would recommend a cheddar, parmesan or flavorful camembert with a California cabernet or zinfindel, an Italian barolo or a big French rho ne.
As can be seen, in matching wine with cheese you again follow the first principle discussed -- match the intensity of the flavor of the wine to the intensity of the flavor of the food.