| | Print

One of the best aspects of eating out is being served by experts who can take elevate the dining experience to the next level, often in the form of food and drink pairings. But understanding the nuances of flavors is a skill that requires attention, patience, and time to learn. Whether you’re a newbie just crafting your very first restaurant business plan or an experienced restaurateur looking to sharpen your skills, here are some guidelines to pairing wine with a variety of food. Make sure you and your staff are well versed in each pairing so you’re able to make the best recommendations to your guests.

Wines to Pair with Vegetarian Dishes

When it comes to pairing wine with vegetarian dishes, the preparation of the dish is the most important factor to consider. Pay attention to the herbs, sauces and spices and use those elements to guide you in your wine pairing suggestions.

Fresh Tossed Salads

A tossed salad is a challenging dish to pair because the acidity in the vinaigrette competes with most wines. Suggest a bright sparkling wine, where the acidity will work with the dressing, not against it.

Grilled Vegetables

Nothing is better than fresh vegetables in the summer, grilled with some olive oil and salt. Each vegetable brings its own flavors, but this variety of summer flavors would all work well with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, whose hints of citrus and freshly cut grass will compliment the fresh vegetables.

Rich Vegetable Dishes

For the diner ordering a richer vegetarian dish, such as a pasta with fresh asparagus and creamy sauce, suggest a wine with a bit more heft. This is a situation where a white burgundy would work well, or even a more buttery California chardonnay. In both cases, the richness of the wines would compliment the richness of the sauces.

Hearty Vegetable Stew

For a dish that is rich and hearty made with winter root vegetables, such as a ratatouille, suggest a richer white from the Rhone Valley, or even a viognier from California. These wines offer richness, with notions of stone fruit and honeysuckle.

Meat Substitutes

Despite being designed to be as close to meat as possible, meat substitutes like seitan and tofu aren’t as equipped to hold up to wines traditionally paired with their real meat counterparts. For this reason, avoid those classic meat pairings such as Napa Valley cabernets or Bordeaux. Instead, pair these meats with a Grenache-based wine, like those produced in Spain. A rosé from France or Spain would also work nicely with these dishes.

Build your own custom menu with our Smart Menu Builder.

Seafood Wine Pairings

Just as most people think red wine when they think red meat, they usually think white wine when they think seafood. That’s a good rule of thumb, but depending on the fish and the preparation, there are a number of different options to get people excited to try something new.

Here are some handy wine pairing suggestions for seafood.


Salmon is an example of a fish that can work with many different types of wine, depending on its preparation. For example, if it’s seared, made with a spice crust, or served with a dark sauce, pair with a lighter bodied red, such as a pinot noir from Oregon. Likewise, if the salmon has been poached, and perhaps served with a butter or cream-based sauce, then the richness of a buttery chardonnay from California would pair nicely.

White, Flakey Fishes

The preparation of the fish should dictate the pairing, but for a go-to option, consider one that works well with a wide variety of styles. Try Spanish whites, such as Albariño, or a sauvignon blanc or fume blanc from California.

Darker, Oily Fish

For a fish that is strongly flavored, such as sardines or mackerel, you’ll need a more strongly flavored wine to stand up to it. Richer whites would work well for this purpose, such as those from the Rhone Valley in France. You could even suggest a lighter red, such as a Cru Beaujolais from France or a lighter Barbera from Italy.

Fried Fish

The always popular fish and chips is a staple for a lot of guests, but not everyone reaches for a beer. For a fried preparation, you want a wine with a lot of acidity to brighten up the experience. For this reason, a sparkling wine like a French Champagne is a great option, and a Spanish cava gets the job done with budget in mind. Also consider some lesser known whites, such as txakoli from Spain or gruner veltliner from Central Europe.


For sushi or other raw fish dishes such as ceviche, servers should direct diners to a wine more delicate in nature. Again, sparkling wine is a perfect pairing because of its bright acidity, but if someone is averse to bubbles, suggest a bottle of muscadet from France.

How to Pair Wine with Spicy Food

Spicy food is particularly hard to pair because the flavors are so complex and usually have many different ingredients. Because pairing wines with spicy food is challenging, a lot of diners reach for a refreshing beer instead. But don’t give up too soon, there are plenty of pairing options for the wine drinker at your table.

Adding your menu to your POS shouldn’t feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. With Upserve POS, restaurateurs build courses and automatically fire items with a quick tap. Schedule a demo now.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind and help your servers make a knowledgeable recommendation.

When looking for a wine for spicy food, many options tend to be white.

  • Look for wines that are refreshing and have a crisp acidity.
  • The acidity in a wine will help to brighten the flavors in the dish and provide a refreshing contract to the heat.
  • Wines such a sauvignon blanc or Champagne work nicely with spicy foods such as those found in Indian cuisine.

Off-dry whites, wines that have a hint of sweetness due to some residual sugar in the fermentation process, are often good matches for spicy flavors, particularly fiery Asian dishes.

  • Look for wines such as riesling or gewurztraminer, or a bottle that has juicy fruit flavors.
  • The hint of sweetness will balance out the heat and spice, and enhance the other flavors in the dish.
  • If your customer is not a fan of slightly sweet wines, suggest a dry option, but one that still contains the fruity aromatics

When choosing a white, remember to avoid wines that are heavily oaked or highly alcoholic, such as a California chardonnay. Both these qualities will fight with the food, rather than enhance it. The flavors in the wine will try and dominate the palate, often leading to bad tasting pairings.

When looking for a red wine, steer clear of wines that are high in alcohol.

Australian shiraz, or wines like barolo that are high in tannins, should be avoided as tannins contribute a bitter flavor that can overpower the dish. Look for a red wine that is lighter in body and more fruit-focused in style, such as a Beaujolais or a grenache-based wine from the Cotes du Rhone. Always consider how the dish is prepared: A dish with smoke or hot peppers, like barbecue with a spicy sauce, may work well with a spicier red like a malbec from Argentina or a zinfandel from California.

Pairing Wine with Steak

When it comes to pairing wine with meat, red wine and steak often go hand in hand, but be sure to consider the cut of meat, as well as the preparation. Here’s how to guide your servers through the pairing process.

Steak Tartare

Since steak tartare can easily be overwhelmed by a strong wine, guide your guests to something more delicate, like a New Zealand pinot noir or a Cru Beaujolais from France, such as a moulin a vent. A rosé Champagne would also be a natural match, especially if the tartare is an appetizer course.

Filet Mignon

As the name suggests, the tenderloin offers a tender cut of meat, as well as a low fat content. Traditionally an expensive cut of meat, it’s a natural chance to sell a special bottle. Suggest a wine lower in tannins with more elegance, such as a merlot from California.

Prime Rib

A rich and flavorful cut of meat, prime rib needs a wine that won’t overpower the flavors, but instead enhance them. Look to a pinot noir from California for a great match. Its elegance doesn’t sacrifice flavor, but it also won’t compete with the food.

New York Strip

This cut of meat is the perfect place to recommend a full bodied red like a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, and a great opportunity to push that extra special bottle. If your guests are a little more price conscious, stay with cabernet, but steer them to a bottle from Chile.

Rib Eye

Look to an old world bottle with plenty of tannins for rib eye, a steak with a high fat content. Try recommending a Bordeaux, perhaps from St. Emilion. These wines have plenty of tannins and structure, which will be balanced out by the fat in the meat.


This thick and hearty cut of meat is another one deserving of a big wine, such as a cabernet. Again, Napa Valley gets a lot of (well deserved) accolades, but Washington State also produces some delicious, high quality cabernets worthy of attention.

Steak au Poivre

This classic dish would pair nicely with a California zinfandel, which offers a peppery spice note to it. Being generally lower in tannins, with lots of fruit, a zinfandel won’t conflict with the pepper in the dish.

80% of a restaurant’s food sales come from only 16% of menu items. How do you know which ones? The perfect menu is just a click away with Upserve's Menu Builder.

Design Your Menu
Written by   |  
Cinnamon is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalist who paid a large part of her way through college and graduate school by serving. Her work has been published with outlets like National Geographic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and more. You can read more about her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.
Restaurant Insider