To start off a dinner party while passing around hors d’oeuvres, I will select a fun wine—fresh and fruity. Our Fume Blanc Napa Valley is a perfect match, or try a sparkling wine. During the warmer days of summer, I might select a rosé and during the colder months, our Chardonnay Napa Valley.
During the course of a meal, I always offer two types of wines. The exploration of the senses is the fun part of the party. I start the meal with a sparkling wine or a white, and then move to the heavier entrée with the wine matching the richness of the dish. Often I like to let my guests select their own pleasure by offering our Chardonnay Reserve and our Pinot Noir Reserve for the entrée, two different vintages of the same winery, or two different wineries from the same varieties. If I have to choose one, I choose a medium-body pinot noir, which is adaptable to many different flavors and textures. And if ever in doubt, Champagne goes with everything!
My No. 1 rule of thumb for wine pairing is to keep flavors in balance. I usually select the wines and from that point create a menu. But if you prefer to set your menu first, ask yourself about the overall taste of your recipe. Is it mild or flavorful? Is it fatty or lean? Is it rich or acidic? It is important to match wine with foods of similar richness and texture. Also make sure you balance the acidity of the food to the wine; a bright Sancerre will go well with shrimp with lemon. If you have a very fatty dish, you’ll want to cleanse your palate with a robust, bold, tannic wine. A fruity off-dry wine will do well with spicy food.
For an exotic, evocative flavor trip, I love to match the wines with the country where the recipe is coming from. It works the best and is fun to pair. For example, a Chianti Classico will pair well with a tomato-based pasta with sharp cheese and basil. Dinner is an exploration of different flavors, so it is important that the entire dining experience be an enjoyment of all senses. And remember, pleasure at the table is very subjective!
Director of Winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, CA