5. Celebrate Spices and Sauces
Spices, sauces, and herbs are often the most dominant flavors in a dish, which means the wine needs to match not only the main ingredient but, just as importantly, its accompaniments. This is especially true when the main ingredient—be it white-fleshed fish, sautéed chicken, or pasta—is light in nature. For example, seared chicken breast with tarragon sauce would be best with a fruitier Sauvignon Blanc, while that same chicken breast doused with barbecue sauce would rock a spicy Syrah.
6. When in Doubt, Invest in Options
At home, you have the luxury of experimenting a bit. If you're uncertain about a specific pairing, try opening two different wines and sample both with your meal. Comparing wines of different varieties or styles is the most effective way to determine what varietals match up best with foods—and a great way to educate your palate. Purchasing half bottles is one way to mitigate the cost, though leftover wine is also always handy for cooking, especially for sauces, braises, and reductions.
7. Don't Skip What Sparkles
It's all too common to skip past sparkling wines when it comes to mealtime pairings, but remember that a bubbly rosé could be the perfect match for a tricky-seeming dish. The red-wine qualities in a rosé, and the bubbles and slight sweetness in sparkling wines in general, add a touch of boldness, which means that rosés work well with fried, spicy, salty, or other big-flavored foods.
8. Don't Be Afraid to Mix and Match
While finding complementary tastes, flavors, intensities, and textures tends to spell success in food and wine pairings, remember that opposites can sometimes attract. Selecting a wine that contrasts with what's on the plate can make for interesting variations and interplay, such as in the classic marriage of salty Roquefort cheese and sweet Sauternes. If you do decide to mix and match your pairing, though, remember to pay attention to the fundamental nature of both the food and the wine. While the salty and sweet tastes of Roquefort and Sauternes are very much at odds, the cheese and wine do have some things in common: They are equally rich, complex, and bold.
With these key considerations in mind, choosing a wine can be an enjoyable and very rewarding experience. Have confidence in what tastes good to you, and at the same time, don't be afraid to sip outside your comfort zone and discover new favorites. This is the only way to truly expand your palate and define your personal preferences for the most delicious matchup for every meal.
Richard J. Vayda is the director of Beverage and Wine Studies at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. He has previously served as restaurant director, sommelier, wine buyer, and maître d'hôtel at Le Cherche-Midi, Tatou Supper Club, and other fine-dining restaurants in New York.