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How to Elevate Dinner With Wine Pairings

Let vino spruce up your multi-course meal

Tracy Block Staff Reporter
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A dinner with wine pairings puts wine exactly where it should be: in dialogue with food. It adds an element of ceremony and entertainment to a meal at home.
- Mark Oldman, wine personality, master educator, and award-winning author


Summer’s officially here, which means you’ve got some extra time on your hands to truly enjoy good wine – especially when paired properly with dinner. Did you know that wine consumers in the US are currently on the rise? According to a report released by WineIntelligence.com, the wine-drinking population in the US reached a record high of 118 million in 2019. 

As we all continue to savor more home-cooked comfort food these days, why not indulge with some wine to pair? If you’re not sure how to curate a wine dinner or the best varietals to choose this summer, consider the below tips, so you can get to toasting to dinner – with both purpose and style.

Pairing Wine With Food

As a wine lover who already enjoys a glass or two with dinner, you may be wondering how to go about the proper pairing. However, don’t let the process intimate you. A wine dinner can certainly remain on reserve as an occasional treat. According to Mark Oldman, wine personality, master educator, and award-winning author of books like How to Drink Like a Billionaire, not every dinner requires – nor deserves – a customized wine pairing.

“It’s too much effort,” Oldman admits. “But, where the meal is special and multi-course, it is fun and rewarding to create wine pairings. A dinner with wine pairings puts wine exactly where it should be: in dialogue with food. It adds an element of ceremony and entertainment to a meal at home. And, like the quarantine itself, it slows you down and forces you to appreciate gustatory sensations that you normally might not have given yourself the time to notice.”

In addition, Oldman recommends enjoying dinners paired with wine flights (a variety of pours, versus one pour) with people who love wine and will appreciate the extra effort that goes into the planning. “The important guideline is to serve lighter wines with delicate foods and heavier wines with rich, robust fare,” he shares. “The goal is to ensure that neither the wine nor the food obscures the other so that you appreciate the flavors in both.” 

For example, a sauce can significantly change the underlying food’s compatibility with wine – if a lighter fish loves a light white, the same fish bathed in a rich, creamy sauce or fried in a thicker batter becomes an excellent candidate for a heavier white or even a lighter red. Furthermore, Oldman says that it’s best to go from light-bodied to full-bodied when designing a flight, “from white to red, and dry to sweet.”

How to Pair Wine With a Multi-Course Meal

If you’re intimidated by the work that goes into crafting a wine dinner, fret not. To craft a multi-course dinner with wine pairings, Oldman offers the following tips:

• Amuse-bouche: Champagne, always! Or, any type of bubbly, like cava, prosecco, or American sparkling wine.

• Appetizers: Stick with bubbly or graduate to a light white. Go with a white that’s not too oaky, like certain California Chardonnays. Consider something with ample acidity, which refreshes the palate and heightens the flavor of the food.

• Soup: Is the soup light and brothy or rich and cream-based? Either way, with multiple courses, at this point, a lighter-style, tangy white, like Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Chenin Blanc are both wise choices.

• Salad: You can continue with Sauvignon Blanc, which has a grassy, herbal quality and matches well with greens. Or, you can pivot to a crisp, medium-bodied rosé. Regardless, the tanginess of these wines will match well with the acidity of the salad dressing, creating a pleasingly-sweet sensation on your palate.

• Main Courses: This depends on what you are serving. One failsafe option is to go with a lighter red, like a Pinot Noir, Chianti, or Grenache from Australia. Being medium-bodied and generally low in bitter tannins, they all pair well with virtually anything. That said, rich, meaty fare, like steak or stew, cries out for a rich red, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.

• Dessert: While dessert wine serves better as a dessert rather than with it, it can work alongside dessert – so long as it has enough sweetness to stand up to the confection in the dessert. So, while chocolate cake will dominate a lightly sweet Moscato D’Asti (possibly even making the wine taste thin or even sour), it will meet its match in a fully sweet Port.

As for cheese, there’s a whole different element of complexity to consider. Oldman recommends the below:

• Dry Monterrey Jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano: Any wine

• Cheddar or Aged Gouda: A tannic class of Cabernet Sauvignon

• Goat Cheese: A crisp, tart Sancerre or Chablis

• Brie and Camembert: A sharp white or lighter red

• Stinky Cheeses: California Cabernet Sauvignon, red Bordeaux, Italian Barolo, or Australian Shiraz

Breaking the Wine Pairing Rules

When it comes to strict stereotypes, like only pairing certain wines with specific food items, Oldman says to go with your gut. “You should always default to what tastes best to you,” he offers. “That is the overriding tip. There are no rules – just guidelines.” 

For example, Oldman says the timeworn “white with fish, red with meat” rule is largely irrelevant these days. “There’s no reason why you can’t pair lighter reds, like Beaujolais, and lighter styles of Pinot Noir, Rioja, and Chianti, with richer fish, like salmon or swordfish.”

Still, Oldman encourages you to indulge in champagne with dinner whenever possible – not just to kick off a great meal. “Champagne with dinner is one of life’s greatest neglected pleasures,” Oldman shares. “A richer-style or rosé Champagne will virtually go well with everything – and the bubbles and their celebratory nature will spread joy.”

Oregon Summertime Wines to Bookmark

Oregon wine lover Carrie Wynkoop shifted gears from her career in marketing and digital communications into the field of grapes 5 years ago. Now the owner Cellar 503, an Oregon-focused wine club, Wynkoop seeks out – and handpicks – each unique, small-production varietal for her nationwide membership.

Echoing Oldman’s sentiment, Wynkoop firmly believes you should drink what you like. “Riesling in winter? A big, bold Cabernet in the summer? If you like it, go for it!” she exclaims. She also loves pairing spicy reds, like Tempranillo from Southern Oregon, with ribs on the barbecue, and light, bright, high-acid whites, like Melon de Bourgogne from Willamette Valley, with fresh seafood. “And really, rosé is amazing with anything, anytime, anywhere.”

Contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot more coming out of Oregon’s wine country than noteworthy Pinot Noir. Additional Oregon selects for summertime that Wynkoop personally recommends include:

• Hooray For You Wine Co. Cabernet Franc: For barbecue, it’s perfect with a little chill on it.

• Quady North: They produce a lineup of rosé great for sipping all year, which are particularly satisfying when really cold on a hot summer day.

• Matzinger-Davies Sauvignon Blanc: This one is lovely, floral, and not over-the-top grassy; this is an elegant white that pairs well with everything.

• Varnum Vintners: Not only do they make personalized-sized bottles of "Porch" bubbly sold in individual beer bottles (which are great for socially distanced wine gatherings), they also make more traditional full bottles of sparkling wine. Try the Brut Rosé.

As you plan your wine dinner this summer, it’s only natural that you may want to dine al fresco. What’s an oenophile to do, though, when outside temperatures are on the rise? “My new, favorite tool is a wine cooler tote bag,” says Wynkoop. “Made from thick plastic, they’re inexpensive and you can fill them with ice and stick your wine in and carry them out.” In fact, Wynkoop loves these totes so much, she’s currently sending them out to all of her members as a thank you gift next month. And, if all else fails, there are still wine bottle koozies, insulated wine cups, and the almighty ice bucket at your disposal this summer.  

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How to Elevate Dinner With Wine Pairings

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