Pairing Wine with Appetizers and Main Courses

A primer on how to pair the best wines with your meal.

Wine on table, woman eating

There is a natural progression to wine drinking throughout a meal. Likewise, there are reasons why particular wines pair naturally with particular foods.

Here are some classic, as well as some of my personal favorite, combinations to try. But remember, this is not a set of directions. It’s always important to let your own palate be your guide.

Appetizers and First Courses

White or sparkling wine is usually best with starters. With antipasto perhaps a Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. With sushi or tuna carpaccio, Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc. Asparagus and artichokes have a pronounced effect on wine, making it taste sweeter, and so are tricky to pair: try a grassy Sauvignon Blanc with citric overtones, and don’t pull out your best bottle with either of these. With caviar? Champagne, bien sûr. Oysters? Chablis, Muscadet, Champagne or sparkling wine; depending on the type and style of oyster, perhaps a Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. Ditto for clams (raw or casino). With crudités, something like Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc or a light Chardonnay. With foie gras, Champagne or sparkling wine, or a late-harvest Riesling or Sauternes. Nuts or olives? Champagne or another dry sparkling wine. Prosciutto and melon offer interesting possibilities, starting with my favorite, Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. A Pinot Blanc can go well. Quiche? Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling or sparkling wine. Scallops call for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, sparkling wines or Sémillon. Smoked fish (trout, herring), on the other hand, can marry well with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and sparkling wine.

Soups call for no wine at all. Salads are difficult for wine because of the dressings, especially those that are vinegar-based. Your best bet apart from water is a Sauvignon Blanc, especially if it is a full salad, like a Niçoise.

Say “pasta,” even in a salad, and I think light Chianti. A pasta salad can also work with a Sémillon or a light red. Pâtés marry with a range of wines from Gewürztraminer to sparkling wines to Pinot Gris to Beaujolais. For pasta as an appetizer or main course, it depends on the sauce and ingredients. If it’s a shellfish pasta, a white, for sure, say Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Vernaccio di San Gimignano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Blanc. For a pasta with vegetables, a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Vernaccio di San Gimignano or a Barbera work for me. A cream sauce calls for the acidity of a Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc, among a range of whites. And, finalemente, pasta with tomato sauce. Did you say Chianti? Perhaps a Rosso di Montepulciano, Zinfandel or Côtes du Rhône. (Avoid anything old, because tomato sauces interact too much with wine to permit subtle flavors to survive.)

Red wines are the choice with cured cold meats, such as salami, prosciutto, chorizo and Serrano ham. Ditto beef carpaccio. Try Chianti, Barbera or, for a bigger red, a Ribera del Duero. (Bigness is full body, depth of flavor, and is sometimes overpowering for the less experienced palate.) Lighter cold meats, such as chicken, marry well with a Pinot Gris, Riesling, Beaujolais or other light red.

Fish and Shellfish

Lobster cries out to me for Chardonnay from Burgundy or the Napa Valley. I can also enjoy it with a top Chablis—or Champagne: I couldn’t count the number of lobsters we’ve boiled on a Sunday evening in New York and washed down with bubbly. Crab can match with a Sauvignon Blanc as well as Chardonnay and Champagne. Mussels, among my favorites, go down nicely with a Muscadet, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc or perhaps a Spanish Albariño. A light and simple Chardonnay, like a Saint-Véran, can work, too, but as with most seafood, a white with a little acidity (or “backbone”) meets the challenge for me. With shrimp try a Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc. For fish of delicate taste such as red snapper or striped bass, Chardonnay is more the rule than exception: I’m there nine out of ten times, though, depending on the sauce and accompaniments, a Riesling, Pinot Blanc or Viognier can work, too, as with other white fish. We are red wine partisans, particularly of Pinot Noir, when it comes to everybody’s heart-healthy favorite, salmon. Red’s my choice for tuna as well, perhaps a Merlot, though you could also consider a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, in that order. Swordfish works for me with the same lineup, though I can also enjoy it with sparkling wine, especially rosé Champagne. As for sushi, which I adore, a white such as a Riesling, Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc will be fine, but for me nothing beats sparkling wine.

Meat and Poultry

Chicken has the reputation of going well with almost any wine, white or red, but here I have a strong preference for a red from the southern Rhône. Rotisserie chicken is one of Edward’s favorite dishes, so we have it regularly in Paris, in Provence and also at home in New York. We always have it with a Côtes du Rhône, a Gigondas or, on occasion, a Châteauneuf du Pape. Having spent my adult life coming to these preferences, I can’t think of a reason to change. Now, if we are sitting in some star-laden gastronomic temple and are served chicken in a preparation that disguises its identity as such, we would probably set aside our homely preferences and opt for an elegant Chardonnay or more likely a white Châteauneuf du Pape.

Any of these whites or a Pinot Noir would be my pick for Cornish hen. Duck means red, Pinot Noir being my first choice. Memories of the duck at Paris’s La Tour d’Argent with great bottles of Burgundy have pretty much set my standard. Still, lots of people enjoy a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon with their duck; and truth be told, the occasional Saint-Émilion (a Bordeaux combining both those grapes plus Cabernet Franc) has indeed passed my lips at a duck dinner. Ditto Barbaresco. Pheasant means Pinot Noir or perhaps a Syrah. And I think I am on to something with rosé Champagne. Quail calls for only Pinot Noir. Goose can get it on with some bigger red wines, spicy Rhônes first of all. Then there is turkey: every Thanksgiving you read wine suggestion after suggestion. For Thanksgiving roast turkey, a patriotic California Zinfandel is our pick by a country mile. A Barbaresco is tempting, however, as is a Pinot Noir. A really big white Chardonnay can work, but we prefer that only with straight white-meat turkey, especially in a sandwich.

Veal, like chicken, is wine flexible, and Chardonnay is recommended, though a light red is understandable. Pork with fuller flavor can sometimes work with a big white, like a white Châteauneuf du Pape, but my preference is for a medium-bodied red, such as a Merlot or Spanish Tempranillo. A light-meat pork dish can go with a fruity white, such as a German Riesling or a Viognier. Plain rabbit calls first for a white, perhaps a Riesling, though with a particularly hearty preparation and sauce, reds from Pinot Noir to Merlot to Syrah can work.

Big reds are the unambiguous order of the day for lamb, beef, venison and sausage. With lamb, I like Bordeaux and Bordeaux blends, Merlots, big Pinot Noirs, Rhônes and Zinfandel. Beef invites me to open up those Bordeaux bottles I’ve been keeping or the big Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. But a Super Tuscan can be most tempting as well, especially if you’ve ever had bistecca fiorentina (beefsteak). And I challenge you to try Champagne with a grilled steak. It’s a real winner. Barbecue also really invites Rhône blends and Zinfandel, which chez moi also get the nod for sausage. But here’s a counterintuitive sausage tip: try a Riesling. Venison and anything gamey call for a Rhône or Zinfandel as well, but we favor Pinot Noir.

Other Main Courses

Are wine pairings with spicy ethnic dishes from cultures without winemaking a waste? Some would say so, but I say nonsense. They can, in fact, provide some of the most beguiling adventures in taste. For curried fish or chicken dishes, try a Riesling if you want white or a Zinfandel if red. Hot Chinese dishes marry with sparkling wines, as well as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or, for a red choice, Merlot. Spicy Mexican goes best with, okay, beer. But try a Riesling, Pinot Gris or Beaujolais. In my experience, Thai often marries well with fruity white wines, Riesling or Gewürztraminer, but also a Pinot Blanc or a sparkling wine. Couscous? Red as in Merlot or even a Cabernet Franc or Rhône. Moussaka? Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese or Barbera. Pizza? You know I love Champagne, but always think first of a Chianti regardless of the topping. Barbera and Zinfandel are good picks as well.