Many find that ordering wine at a restaurant or picking out a wine for a dinner party can be a daunting task, particularly when faced with an array of choices that may or may not look familiar. This feeling of helplessness is aggravated by the unfortunate and misplaced perception that somehow wine knowledge is a barometer of someone's level of sophistication.
Some of us have our "go to" wines: we remember liking certain varietals and producers and wherever possible stick to the script. I see three problems with this; firstly, the "go to" may not be on the list or in the store. Secondly, it may not enhance the meal, or it will be right for half the table and not the other half. Thirdly, we might miss out on trying a lot of great wines that are new to us.
I would like to suggest a different way of defining the "go to" wine. While of course it should be a wine you enjoy and love, it should also be versatile and pair well with a wide variety of cuisines. It should also be common enough that you can find it on most wine lists and in most wine stores. Here are three of my favorites that are food friendly, crowd pleasing, and great for most occasions:
More than any other wine, bubbly evokes an abundance of joy! Anything that pleasing should be consumed more frequently than just on special occasions and as apéritifs. There is another reason dry Champagne should be more of an everyday wine, it is incredibly adaptable, pairing sensationally well with an array of dishes from oysters, sushi, fried foods and salty snacks to cheese plates and middle eastern food.
I like to support grower Champagne, made by smaller, independent producers rather than big corporate Champagne houses; I find the overall quality and quality to value to be much higher. You can identify a grower Champagne by the small print on the label: it will say "RM" (vs. "NM" for the big, negotiant houses). Some of my favorite names to look for: Pierre Gimmonet, Pierre Péters, Gaston Chiquet, and Vilmart & Cie.
2. Grüner Veltliner
Grüner is a crisp white from Austria. Because of it's herbal and peppery edge, it can pair with foods that are notoriously difficult to pair like asparagus, artichokes, and green salads. It is also a seamless match with a lot of Asian foods and is adaptable enough to complement sausages and charcuterie.
Many of the best examples come from the Wachau, Kamptal, or Kremstal. I enjoy the wines of producers Schloss Gobelsburg, Brundlmayer, Geyerhof, and Nigl.
A happy wine that aims to please, Gamay is a light-bodied red grape from Beaujolais, the southern-most portion of Burgundy, France. I don't mean Beaujolais Nouveau, which is generally mass-produced and low-quality, but rather the wines from the ten "Crus" of Beaujolais, which are special plots of land that produce high-quality, serious and nuanced examples of the wine without losing the fresh easiness for which Gamay is known.
A Cru Gamay is the perfect choice for a meal with a vast array of flavors and textures-- it is light enough to pair with fish or chicken yet has enough weight to stand up to cured meat and pâté, game foul, and even a juicy burger. My favorite (and the most widely available) crus are: Morgon, Fleurie and Moulin à Vent. Exceptional producers include Claude Desvignes, Clos de la Roilette, Domaine des Terres Dorées, Yann Bertrand, Dutraive, and Marcel Lapierre.
If you are at a restaurant with a good sommelier or a store with knowledgeable staff then I recommend deferring to their judgment. Not only will they know their list and inventory very well but they will also be able to guide you based upon the meal. There is no shame in asking questions. It's also the best way to discover new wines and to discover how some foods and wines come to life and assume new characteristics when paired well. My husband and I were at Terroni recently for a late dinner, brilliant sommelier and friend, Eduardo, poured us a quick succession of Italian wines. Each one highlighted the food in a different way. It was also like taking a fast and wonderful tour of Italy, from volcanic Etna to Valtellina.
If all else fails, just pretend you know what you are doing! As Evelyne de Pontbriand (proprietress of Domaine du Closel, a producer of delicious Savennières) told us at her vineyard in the Loire: "A lot of French people act like they know about wine only by virtue of being French, despite not knowing the first thing about it!" All joking aside, I do think there is something to be said for approaching wine fearlessly. After all, you can't really go wrong. You may pick out some things you don't really like along the way, but you may also discover things you do love. Much of the fun is in expanding your palate and discovering new wines.