Vino 101 Grape Expectations (Part One)
By Jorge Eduardo Castillo

Any time I do a staff wine training for a restaurant, the same question invariably comes up when we taste a particular wine: "What would you pair this with on our menu?" While there is not always a cut-and-dried answer, there are good general guidelines that a server, manager, or sommelier can use in deciding what wine to recommend for a guest.

While the purpose of this three-part article is to clarify how certain foods can be complimented by specific styles of wine, keep in mind that not everyone has the same taste. For example, I swear by full-bodied and fruit-forward Zinfandels when eating spicy foods, but some wine experts prefer a lighter-style red, such as Chianti or Pinot Noir. The final decision is always up to the individual, but the following summaries provide safe guidelines and may help you develop the knack for pairing wine with food.

White Wines

Chardonnay The most commonly consumed white wine, Chardonnay usually fits into one of three categories:

  • Rich, oaky, buttery This style of Chardonnay is usually produced in the U.S. and can be a very powerful wine that sometimes actually needs food to be enjoyed. With its flavors of oak, butter, vanilla, and cream, a full-flavored dish is usually the best way to go. Tuna, swordfish, duck, or just about anything with a heavy cream sauce would go very well with this style.
  • Tropical fruit bomb Medium to full-bodied, this style will tend to be loaded with powerful pineapple, papaya, apple, pear, and even sometimes banana flavors. Australia is becoming very strong in producing this style. This type of Chardonnay can be versatile when pairing with food, and can be used with just about any seafood dish, chicken or turkey.
  • Earthy, minerally, complex The Burgundy region in France has been producing these complex wines for hundreds of years with great success. Usually medium-bodied (but can be full or light-bodied as well), these wines usually have a lot going on in terms of flavors, but can be surprisingly well-balanced. They can be anywhere from acidic like biting into a lemon, to creamy like freshly churned ice cream, but will always have the flavor of the earth (terroir) that somehow keeps everything in balance. There is much variation, so fine recommendations may depend on the specific wine under consideration, but most seafood preparations are complementary.

Sauvignon Blanc While there are also three broad styles of Sauvignon Blanc, they all tend to show similar light-bodied crispness. Keeping it simple, I can say that most Sauvignon Blancs will complement lighter seafood preparations, white flaky fish such as flounder, snapper or sea bass, most shellfish (especially shrimp, crab, scallops and clams), and most salads. Whether you're serving a dry, crisp, minerally Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France, a grapefruity one from New Zealand, or a fruit-forward example from the U.S., Sauvignon Blanc is for the most part crisp and light, which makes it perfect for the dishes listed above.

Riesling Rieslings are often (and sometimes unfairly) judged based on their sweetness. Generally light to medium-bodied, Riesling is usually very approachable and versatile with food, with a range of sweetness from bone-dry to sticky sweet. Germany is known for producing high-quality Riesling, but Alsace (France), Washington, California, Oregon, and Australia have been offering stellar choices and improving consistently. The slight sweetness and light apple, pear or even apricot flavors of a typical Riesling will complement a wide variety of dishes, including most fish (especially trout), pork tenderloin, pork sausage, sushi, stir-fry and roasted vegetables.

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris These grapes are the same but have a different name depending on where they are grown. This wine is usually light-bodied, crisp, and acidic. with melon, pear, and tropical fruit notes. Whether grown in Italy (Pinot Grigio) or Alsace (Pinot Gris), these wines will usually complement flaky white fish (Flounder, Sole, Halibut), steamed shellfish or pasta tossed in butter. In the U.S. and most other New World countries, most wineries use the name Pinot Gris for this variety, but Pinot Grigio is coming into popular use, mostly as a marketing ploy.

Viognier Originally produced in Condrieu (France) and a relative rarity, winemakers in other parts of the world have been increasingly growing this grape over the past decade or so, and its unique floral flavors have been catching on among wine drinkers. Viognier is somewhat of an enigma to U.S. producers, who have been experimenting with the grapes and coming up with some interesting variations. A splash of Viognier is also occasionally blended into red wines - particularly Syrah in France's Cote-Rotie - to heighten and lighten their flavor. Dishes that would complement a good Viognier include grilled chicken or fish, fruit and curry dishes. Don't pair this variety with asparagus, as it makes for a unpleasant combination on the palate.

Gewürztraminer Perhaps the most pungent and full-bodied white wine, Gewürztraminer strikes some people the wrong way. When recommending this wine, make sure the people enjoying it are familiar with the style and understand its nature. Predominantly grown in Alsace and Germany, Gewürtztraminer is a great white wine for cheese, especially those on the ripe end of the spectrum. Curry dishes also go well with this wine. Also, dessert wines made from Gewürztraminer can be great for enjoying after dinner.

Though generalized and brief, these descriptions of some of the most common white wines and how they can be used with food is designed to be helpful to both the food-service professional and the consumer. In Part Two of this series we'll explore common red grapes, and Part Three will cover sparkling and dessert wines.

July 3, 2006

Jorge Eduardo Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training.
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