The table is set, maybe with flickering candles and blood-red napkins. The lights are dim, the vibes flowing. You look deeply into the eyes of your dinner date, searchingly, while you ponder the answer to an eternal, burning question:
“Which wine should I drink with my lobster ravioli?”
The answer doesn’t have to be tricky, or expensive. Some of the richest foods appear on the table: lobster, rib-eye, cream sauces galore. Not surprisingly, dates are eager to impress with equally gluttonous splurges: a Napa Cab, maybe, or some Veuve Clicquot. While there is nothing wrong with either choice (though I’d grab Perrier Jouet over Veuve any day), you don’t have to go broke for a pitch-perfect pairing. What wins the stakes, so to speak, is zeroing in on that almost magical symbiosis between certain wines and the dishes that love them (or vice versa). Like all great couples, they'll bring out the best in each other.
When eating richer foods, “take a sip of your wine before [you take a bite], and take a sip of the wine after,” said John Grosso, owner of Corktree Fine Wine & Liquor in Northport. “The sip before, [the wine] is going to be drier. Then taste after something with lots of cream or butter, and those tannins will cut right through.”
Broadly speaking, there are a few basic rules to pairing: A bold, tannic red wine such as cabernet sauvignon will tame the fattiness of steak. A crisp but robust white, such as steel-aged chardonnay, will calm through cream sauces; drier, citrusy whites such as sauvignon blanc find their foil in flaky white fish, raw clams and most seafood. Off-dry (aka sweeter) wines, such as certain rieslings, blunt the spice in a curry and allow you to taste other flavors. And sparkling wine, such as Champagne? Bubbles complement almost everything, like a favorite scarf.
Whether you want to impress a new date with your wine-pairing chops, pave the way to amorous post-dinner encounters or simply have a memorable dinner, here are some basic pairing suggestions.
Pasta with red sauce
Sure, it’s a cliché, but the acidity of red sauce is tamed and enhanced by the one red wine on almost every Italian-restaurant wine list: Chianti, a dry, almost dusty red, made from the Sangiovese grape, that loves on most pasta dishes. A more offbeat choice: primitivo, another medium-bodied, Italian red that can be moodier and more robust (it’s also the Italian version of zinfandel).
Tomatoes and olives, or crispy and salty? Marinated in lemon or barbecued? Summer or winter? These are questions you may ask when reaching for wine to go with your bird. In general, tack toward the middle of the color spectrum: Eeither a golden, full-bodied white (such as chardonnay, or a white Rhone) or lighter red, such as pinot noir or red Beaujolais, a greatly overlooked wine that is infinitely pairable (and can be served chilled).
Matching lobster with wine illustrates one of the inherent rules of pairing: What grows together, goes together. The crustaceans native to chilly East Coast waters have rich flesh that finds its foil in creamy (or even steel-aged) chardonnay, such as those made on the East End of Long Island. A close second: a chilled, dry, Provencal-style rosé.
Chicken tikka masala
Beer may be the beverage of choice when it comes to curries (and Thai and Chinese food), but pairing wine with spicy dishes is a great exercise. An off-dry wine with residual sugar, such as riesling, will blunt that spiciness, while the heat of chilies will lessen a wine’s sweetness and boost its fruit. Gewürztraminer, in particular, brings its own brand of spice to the party.
Roasted white fish
Sauvignon blanc is an incredibly nimble wine that pairs gracefully with most seafood — flaky white fish included. Just avoid the overly grassy versions, sometimes from New Zealand, which taste like green bell peppers and overpower any flavors in their path. A lesser-known white that matches fish well is the racy Spanish white, albariño.
Vegetables can be a puzzler when it comes to wine pairing. Asparagus, especially, can stump the finest of palates. In general, though, an herbaceous white, such as the Austrian wine gruner veltliner, can match the earthy but bright qualities of many vegetables, as well as add its own peppery zotz. Gruners can be challenging to find but are worth the hunt.
Long Island has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to oysters. The subtleties between them, whether from the Peconic Bay or near Fire Island, can be a mini-education in local waters. What all of these oysters have in common, though, is a combination between brine and creaminess. That brininess is blunted by a crisp, saline wine, such as muscadet (from France), a bristling prosecco or even steel-aged chardonnay.
It glistens with fat, a pat of butter melting along the top. What’s going to bring out your steak’s best side? Red wines with ample tannins, those astringent compounds from grape skins that cling to the sides of your mouth — as well as cut through fat. A robust cabernet sauvignon, or Bordeaux-style blend with a heavy cabernet quotient, will match like a glove; if you want to walk on the light side, reach for sparkling wine.