The taste of the food changes your impression of the wine. For example with steak & kidney or steak & mushroom you will need a big claret; Beaujolais would taste like raspberry juice. Moderate wines can be made to taste sour (eat something sweet), sharp wines smooth (lick salt, or eat crisps).
Crucially, it may not be the heart of the dish that determines the choice; usually it is the most assertive flavouring. Herbs like coriander or mint; vegetables like chilis; spices like ginger; even a dressing like balsamic vinegar will do more than just modify your choice, they will often change it radically, making the difference between red and white, sweet and dry. So choosing wines to go with food, or the reverse, requires a serious understanding of the food as well as the wine.
That is why it is hard to set out comprehensive rules for matching food and wine and why there are remarkably few books on the subject. The only book I know worth having is the very slim, but nevertheless reliable How to Match Food and Wine by Fiona Beckett published by Mitchell Beazley.
I am much less impressed by books like the Hachette Dictionary of Wine which describes all the main French wines in detail and says what food each goes with. The problem is that being French, there is a very strong bias towards saying that the wines of a region go with the food specialities of that region. That is a gross over-simplification, sometimes produces bizarre combinations. Crucially, it omits completely the cuisine of other countries – chauvinism defined.
A good source of ideas is those (few) cookery books that give a wine recommendation with each recipe. Perhaps the most interesting writer in this respect is Raymond Blanc who hails from the Jura and therefore gives unusual prominence to wines from eastern France – Jura, Alsace, Rhone and Burgundy – a welcome extension beyond the Bordeaux/Burgundy axis.
Puzzles still arise with other cuisines. While Asian styles are sufficiently popular in the UK and Australia to have created a big following and the resultant experimentation with wine matches, there is more of an issue with the cuisines of the Middle-East and North Africa, not least because these are Islamic nations where use of alcohol is limited. (Historians will note that it was not always so and point to the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate, but I digress …) It happens that we are big fans of this family of cuisines, so experimentation with wine and analysis of what works and why have become part of the pleasure for us.
First, robust tomato-based sauces are hard to handle and destroy the subtlety of most good wines.
Recommendation: Drink inexpensive southern French, Spanish and, especially, Italian reds, e.g. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. (Raw tomatoes and tomato salsas need white wine or rose.)
Second, and this may surprise you, cheeses don’t generally work well with red wines. Worse, there is no type of wine that works with more than a small number of cheeses. Try Sauvignon Blanc with goat’s cheese; it also works with Wensleydale. However stiltons (and similar blue cheeses) work best with sweet white wines and most soft cheeses work best with an off-dry white like Alsace Pinot Gris. But the best reds from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the northern Rhone should generally not be risked with cheese. Cheerful fruity reds from the New World and old Spanish Riojas and Garnachas stand a far better chance.
Recommendation: Don’t throw a wine and cheese party for connoisseurs of either wine or cheese unless you are prepared to set up lots of separate enclaves with wines and cheeses that really do go together. The same applies in miniature to cheese boards with dinner.
Finally, eggs and wine is a problem to which the only known solution is scrambled egg with smoked salmon and champagne.
Outdoor eating, especially barbecues.
Your taste buds lose sensitivity outdoors, especially in warm weather, so need more intense wines. Also, white wines need to start off very cold if they are not to become disgustingly warm in the glass, yet low temperature destroys taste unless the wine is very intense. This explains why assertive Australian and South African wines work well with barbecues and outdoor food.
Barbecues, with their strong tastes of caramelised meat and spicy sauces, will see off all but the most intense reds.
Showing off a fine wine.
Keep the food simple. Just a lamb chop, a steak or a fish with the simplest accompaniments, but done perfectly, will allow the wine to speak for itself rather than compete with layers of taste and flavourings. Roast meat will be fine if you can restrain yourself from too many trimmings.
Choosing wine in restaurants
Really good restaurants have a separate sommelier. A good sommelier will have tasted everything on the menu and tried to identify the wines best matched to each dish. Take his advice and you will get some really interesting experiences.
If the waiter gives you both the menu and the wine list and takes both the wine and food orders, you are on your own.
Some restaurants have a ‘wine waiter’ but that is not the same as a sommelier. Sometimes they know about wine, rarely will they have gone to the trouble of establishing personal recommendations for every dish on the menu. Generally, you are safer not asking for recommendations.
If your guests are ordering a variety of dishes, or the cooking style is mixed, then don’t bother with very expensive wine. Go for a versatile red like a lighter claret or a Cotes du Rhone, and/or a versatile white like dry (Alsace) Pinot Gris. And remember that relatively few people like either big, tannic reds or the driest whites.