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Wine Pairing, Explained: How to Choose the Right Bottle to Drink With Your Favorite Foods

We've got advice to help you figure out what to drink with dinner tonight.

steak oysters caesar salad pasta Kailley Lindman

Despite all the deep cellars out there, most of the wine consumed in the United States is purchased on the same day that it is opened, and of that a very high percentage is uncorked and enjoyed within two hours of leaving the wine shop. That means there is an awful lot of last-minute decision making going on, much of it based on the food that it will be paired with. The correct response to, “Can you pick up a bottle of wine on the way over?”, besides “Yes, of course,” should also be, “What’s for dinner?”

There are a few basics to pairing wine and food, and they go beyond the overly simplified “red with meat, white with seafood.” What is the taste profile of the food? Is it spicy? Is it sweet? Is it fatty? Is it lean? Spicy food, such as some styles of Indian or Mexican, requires a lower tannin wine with full mouthfeel and possibly a touch of sweetness, such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Fatty foods like steak or burgers are best paired with wines exhibiting strong tannins, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, that will cut the fattiness of the meat. Read on for the best choices with a variety of food options.

Best Wines to Drink With Pizza

Roberta's Bee Sting Pizza honey chili oil
Photo: courtesy Brandon Harman, Erik Kantar and Ivan Cazzola

Whether you’re a New York thin crust fan or a Chicago deep dish aficionado pairing wine with pizza is relatively simple as these pizza styles share the same ingredients: crust, tomato sauce and cheese. With a classic Margherita pizza, we look for a wine that won’t overpower the tomato sauce or mozzarella, so we choose a wine with medium tannins such as a Rosso di Montalcino or Barbaresco from Piedmont. With the addition of sausage and pepperoni we opt for a heavier wine that can complement the meat such as a California Zinfandel or Italian Primitivo, which, incidentally, are the same grape going under different names. White pizzas with only cheese and no tomato sauce call for an unoaked Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.

Best Wines to Drink With Steak

Panzanese steak
Photo: courtesy sbe/Disruptive Restaurant Group

Nothing is better than a California Cabernet Sauvignon paired with a well marbled tomahawk or ribeye; the strong tannins cut through the fat like a sharp steak knife. But when we’re looking at a delicate pan seared filet mignon, a wine with less tannins such as a Pinot Noir or Barolo is in order. Churrasco and meaty ribs cooked over a parrilla pair beautifully with an aged Argentine Malbec, while grass-fed steaks match nicely with a Bordeaux-style blend (whether actually from Bordeaux or from California or Washington) containing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Since we know how much you all love beef, we’ve curated some bold reds to pair with your next steak feast.

Best Wines to Drink With Indian Food

Seafood Alleppey Curry
Photo: courtesy Liz Clayman

There are many different styles of regional Indian cuisine and there are even six different types of curry. One thing that Indian curries have in common, be they creamy, tomato-based, or tart and vinegary, is strong spice from chilies. White wines work best with very spicy food, and white wine with just a touch of residual sugar makes a really good accompaniment. Riesling from Germany, especially the dry or slightly off-dry Kabinettstyle is a good choice, as is Gewürztraminer from Germany or from Alsace in France. High acidity, full texture and the tiniest bit of sugar cut the sensation of heat.

Best Wines to Drink With Thai Food

Lamb Curry, Eem
Photo: Jeremy Repanich

Like Indian food, there is a wide variety of cuisine hailing from Thailand, but one thing many of the dishes have in common is a combination of spice, fresh green herbs and a touch of acidity. Wines with high acid work very well, such as Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends from Bordeaux or Riesling from Alto Adige in Italy. Bracing acidity and citrus, stone fruit and tropical fruit flavors will hold up to the heat and green herbal notes of many types of Thai food.

Best Wines to Drink With Sushi

sunset sushi bento
Photo: courtesy Sunset Sushi/Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios

When visiting France a few years ago we learned that Japan was importing three to four times the amount of Chablis as compared to exports to the United States. The reason is simple; well-made mineral driven white wines are the ultimate match for delicate Japanese cuisine. Sushi and Sashimi pair naturally with Chablis or Petit Chablis from the north of Burgundy, which let the natural seafood flavors shine through. Both styles have little to no oak. Briny sushi made from uni or raw shellfish are delicious with crisp Albariño from the north of Spain because of the wine’s bold acidity and strong minerality. 

Best Wines to Drink With Burgers

Burgers wine
Photo: courtesy PTK/Adobe Stock Images

Regardless of whether you are a burger purist or like yours topped with cheese and bacon, a high-octane red wine with powerful tannins should be your go to pour. Well marbled ground beef has a fattiness that will be both cut and complimented by tannic reds and piling on cheese and bacon add more fat that are the perfect accompaniment to tannins. Think Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, Left Bank Bordeaux, or Malbec from Mendoza. Bold dark berry and spice flavors will stand up to meat and cheese without being overpowered by all that goodness stacked on the bun.

Best Wines to Drink With Mexican Food

Sweet Potato and Pecan Taco, Nixta
Photo: Jeremy Repanich

Food from Mexico runs a gamut of styles, so let’s talk tacos, our takeout favorite. With spicy beef or pork carnitas, a lower tannin red such as Garnacha from Spain or Syrah from Northern Rhone appellations such as Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas or Côte Rôtie will match nicely. Rich fruit flavors will hold up to grilled meat, while good acidity and soft tannins will keep spice from overpowering the palate. With fish or shrimp, especially with citrus juice and cilantro, New Zealand or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a good choice; bright acidity and tropical fruit flavors work well with seafood, spice and chopped green herbs.

Best Wines to Drink With Roast Chicken

hot honey butter roasted chicken
Photo: courtesy Tabasco

On a cold winter’s night there’s nothing as comforting as a chicken roasting in the oven. For lightly seasoned chicken with only salt and pepper a soft Pinot Noir from Burgundy is a great match. For chicken made with garlic and lemon a white wine is in order, such as an unoaked Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc. When using butter and herbes de Provence a well-oaked California Chardonnay makes a nice marriage, and if heavier side dishes call more for red wine, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas is an excellent choice. 

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