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Messages In a Bottle: The Cook's Wine Cellar

win-cellr.jpgWhenever people find out that I write about wine, the first question is always "Wow. Do you make a living at that?"

The answer, people, is no.

The second question (if I get one and people don't smile knowingly and start discussing the weather) varies, usually with the intellect and sensitivity of the individual. Inevitably, no matter how subtle a conversationalist or how knowledgeable a wine lover, the questioner poses some variation of "So what do you like to drink?"

Which really, most of the time, means "So what do you recommend for me to drink?"

And this is the question that I almost always try to avoid answering " and always fail miserably, guilt inevitably pushing me to offer some advice, even against my best instincts. It's not that I don't want to be helpful, it's that I'm afraid I can't really be very helpful. Wine is such a subjective thing that even with the time to sit and find out what wines people like and don't like (they usually can't remember), it's hard to make a recommendation.

But people still want them; and in particular, the folks who cook really seem to want them.

So here we go. I'm caving in. I don't know you at all, except for the fact that you like to cook, and you want something to drink with dinner that will go well with food.

So if you were just going to go out and buy thirty bottles of wine, here's what I think you should get. Of course, these won't be recommendations for specific wines; I have no idea where you live, or when you'll be reading this, or what your budget is -- but I'll give you as specific a recommendation as makes sense. Then, if you're so inclined, you can print this out and take it to the wine shop whose selection and staff are the best, and they'll be able to work with it.

Why thirty bottles? Well that's about how many a small family might reasonably drink over the course of a few months, assuming they have a couple of friends over occasionally for dinner. Thirty bottles also seems to be what a lot of medium-sized kitchen wine racks will hold.

So, without further ado, and with more than a little trepidation, here's my ideal wine cellar list for people who love to cook:

Two Bottles of White Burgundy
Chardonnay pairs fabulously with all manner of foods, but you wouldn't know it from drinking heavily-oaked California wines. Crisp, mineral and lightly fruity white Burgundy will suit a million and one dishes: most any kind of fish, cream based soups, chicken, pasta in white sauces -- the list goes on and on. Did I mention goat cheese? Oh my, goat cheese, yes. I always make sure to have several bottles of White Burgundy on hand no matter what the weather or occasion. Those on a budget can find excellent inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisse or village wines, while those who want to spend more can opt for wines from places like Chablis, Macon, or Montrachet.

Two Bottles of Alsatian Whites
I'm tempted to say there's not an Alsatian wine I've met that I haven't liked, but while that would be a lie, it wouldn't be far from the truth. Of course these recommendations aren't about my palate, they're about food matching. From that infamously disputed valley between France and Germany that manages to be both and neither at the same time come slightly off-dry, complex flavors of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and various white blends that are excellent matches for more complex dishes that incorporate more exotic spices or many layers of flavors. In a pinch, they also make a lovely aperitif.

Three Bottles of Austrian or German Riesling
It takes a while for most wine lovers to get past their fear of Austrian and German wines; most ordinary consumers simply turn away in horror. It's mostly due to the twelve syllable, eight word names on the bottle that don't resemble any grape or place most people have ever heard of. I'm here to tell you it's OK to be a bit overwhelmed, but you simply can't miss out on some of the best fish wines on the planet, not to mention the only wines that really consistently go well with Asian spices found in Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian recipes. For German Rieslings, I recommend searching out wines designated as Kabinett or Halbtrocken (ask your friendly wine store for help), and for Austrian Rieslings there are no extra words to remember, except perhaps for Kremstal, which is a region that produces some nice ones.

Four Bottles of White Rhone Wine
The more white wines I have from the France's Rhone Valley, the more I'm convinced they are some of the most overlooked, versatile food wines on the planet. Usually blends of various grape varieties like Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier, these wines are completely overshadowed by their red brethren. Very few people know the joys of opening a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc with dinner. These southern whites, as well as other Rhone whites from either North or South, may be a little less common in wine stores, but try opening one anytime you think you have a dish that needs a white wine.

Four Bottles of Pinot Noir
Good Pinot Noir has the interesting property of turning some wine drinkers into raving lyric poets, so much do some people like these wines. Much of their appeal has to do with their aromatic character, but some certainly has to do with their compatibility with the dinner table. Short of a grilled steak or blood sausage, there are very few meats that Pinot can't accompany well, and it's a slam dunk with most any fowl, as well as richer vegetable dishes that include eggplant or squash. The adventurous and well-financed can carefully explore Pinot Noir in the form of Burgundy, but for most people the easiest access comes in the form of countless excellent wines from California, New Zealand and Oregon. Keep an eye out for alcohol levels (always printed on the label) which have crept up in the last decade and which, when high, can make a Pinot harder to match with food. Wines in the 13% to 14% range are a good target.

Four Bottles of Southern Rhone Red
If the whites of the Rhone are overshadowed by Rhone reds, then the reds of the Southern Rhone Valley are certainly overshadowed by their cousins in the North. Some wine lovers and food lovers alike have heard of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and with good reason -- it's a fabulous wine to drink with foods of all kinds -- but far fewer have heard of Gigondas, Vacqueyras or the various smaller areas that get classified as Cotes-du-Rhone Villages. These wines are fabulously versatile with dishes as heavy as lamb or pork tenderloin or as light as mixed vegetables. They do wonders with anything grilled.

Two Bottles of Sangiovese
If you're going to cook pasta with tomato sauce or make your own pizza, you've got to have some Sangiovese around. There's just no substitute for wines made from this grape when it comes to tomato based dishes of all kinds, as well as Italian food in general. You can find wines called Sangiovese in stores, though those are usually from California and a mixed bag, if you ask me. Instead you can go for Chianti, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino at reasonable prices, or for bigger budgets Brunello di Montalcino is always nice.

Two Bottles of Provence / Languedoc Red
There are always those dishes that are darker and more complex than others; maybe they've got lots of mushrooms, or a dark rich sauce, or they incorporate wild meats like venison or boar. While these dishes can be matched with a red from the Southern Rhone, or even some Pinot Noirs, sometimes it's nice to have a wine that has a darker character. For this reason, I think it's always a good idea to have a couple of bottles hanging around from the south of France. These wines, which come from appellations like Minervois, Bandol or Languedoc-Roussillon, are usually a mix of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane, Grenache and any number of other dark, earthy grapes. I recommend everyone experiment with these wines anytime they've got a hearty meat dish to pair with, not to mention anything you might have on the barbecue.

Two Bottles of California Cabernet
Sometimes there's nothing like a charcoal grilled rib-eye, and sometimes there's nothing like a good Cabernet. There's a reason they call it the King of Grapes. These days, the key to finding wines that actually pair well with foods is to keep an eye on alcohol levels and to avoid the big tannic wines unless you have time to properly age them. A good wine shop will be able to steer you toward wines that will reward drinking sooner than later, and which will provide good value for the money. Of course, if you have the time, money and cellar for it, you can also buy the big guns from California and Bordeaux, and then drink them when they're ready. I don't know about you, but I don't really have the patience for that.

One Bottle of California Zinfandel & One Bottle of Australian Shiraz
There's one time I find really huge wines food friendly, and that's when I'm having cheese. If your dinner parties regularly incorporate a cheese course it can be worthwhile to have a big, dark, heavy, bold Zinfandel or Shiraz hanging around to match. I'll tell you a little secret, though -- those Alsatian whites can also be excellent cheese wines as well.

Two Bottles of Bubbly
There's just no substitute for a little sparkle, whether it's as a welcome to guests or alongside the delicate flavors of raw fish. Champagne can be intimidating and expensive to buy (but oh-so-rewarding), so I always encourage people to try the more accessible Cava or Prosecco as well. The adventurous can explore Txakoli, the sparkling wine of the Basque region, and careful buyers can also find excellent Muscadets from France's Loire Valley for dinner.

One Bottle of Dessert Wine
Sometimes it's really nice to have something sweet at the end of the meal. There's a huge variation in what's available out there, and everyone likes different things. With food pairing in mind, however, I tend to look for wines that have higher acidity. This can mean Sauternes, the famous dessert wine of Bordeaux, but more often it means wines like Riesling Berenauslese from Germany, Vin Santo from Italy, Jurancon from Southern France, Icewine from Canada or some of the Tokay from Hungary. It's especially important to taste these wines before you buy so you know the flavors you're dealing with.

So there you have it. A nice little collection of thirty bottles to play with that can be purchased on budgets both large and small. The wines I've selected tend to be those I grab when I'm in a hurry because I know from experience that they really are fabulous with food. Most, you will find, are also very forgiving, which I hope will take some of the stress out of food and wine pairing, which is a daunting thing for most people. It's hard to go wrong with most of these wines.

Bon appétit.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

Comments (23)

07.09.06 at 9:54 PM

I can't help being a little prejudiced, and I know you know why, but how come there's no recommendation for a Syrah OR a Rhone varietal blend from California? Not saying you should, but wondering what you say about why not?

Alder wrote:
07.09.06 at 11:08 PM


Thanks for the comments. 98% of the Syrah produced in California today is not particularly food friendly due to its flavor profile and alcohol level. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE to drink the stuff, but it's just not great for pairing with food without some care. California Syrah could easily be substituted for the Australian Shiraz in the "cheese" category of this article.

As for Rhone blends from California, some of them could easily be substituted in the "Southern Rhone Reds" category, and perhaps it was remiss of me to mention that. However many of these blends are too high octane for really good pairing these days, as well.

Kevin wrote:
07.10.06 at 5:51 AM

I loved all the recommendations, but was curious as to why you didn't pick any Sauvignon Blancs? I find when it comes to shellfish, they are quite a good pair. Also a favorite for summer sipping in the heat and humidity of Atlanta.

07.10.06 at 6:48 AM

Dear Alder,
it's obvious, because this was your goal, that you are writing ONLY about "food" wines (let me discuss the concept "food wine": to me, all wines can be taken with food, the only think you have to do is to know the properties of your food and of your wine in order to succesfully combine them), and obvious too that you have a limit in 30 bottles. And this is not a vindictive comment (I just love your knowledge!), but if you are talking, for example, about grenache and carignene wines from southern France, it's impossibe to me not to reply and to say that the most fruitful, with a lot of nuances, red wines with these two kind of grapes come from Spain, not from France: the Priorat and the Montsant counties in Catalonia, Spain, offer a great quantity of incredible and at a very good prize (I don't talk about Ermitas or Erasmus or Clos Mogador!) grenache and carignene wines, with a little note of wood (french or american, or both, from two to six months) and prepared to be drunk even in summer (14 to 16 C!). Just two examples: Ceps Nous, from Pasanau Brothers Winery (www.cellerpasanau.com), and Genium Ecològic, from Genium Winery (www.geniumceller.com), both from the Priorat county. I very often travel to France (you know I live in Barcelona) and there's no possible comparison between the two zones (and, I repeat, we are not talking about Álvaro Palacios or Chatêauneuf-du-Pape) if we are looking to medium or low budgets. Other think is, oh yes, of we are able to find these spanish wines in Californian shops.
All the best

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 8:13 AM


You are correct -- I should have mentioned that wines of a similar sort could also be found in Spain as well. Thanks for keeping me honest !

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 8:50 AM


Yes, if there was one wine that I waffled a bit on before including in this list, it was Sauvignon Blanc, and in the end (not particularly for any good reason other than I was happy with the assortment I had created) I ended up leaving it off. It is indeed a great food wine both from its home in the Loire, its adopted home in New Zealand, and increasingly from South Africa as well.

brett wrote:
07.10.06 at 9:00 AM

Perhaps you choose not to answer, but if you do not make a living by writing about wine, what DO you do? Just curious, because it seems you're so plugged into the wine world that it must be a nearly full-time pursuit.

CHE wrote:
07.10.06 at 9:39 AM

I appreciated this article--but of course a lot of it depends on a particular style of eating. If you eat a lot of Indian and thai curries, you can't do better, I don't think, than having a lot of brawny California zinfandel on hand, with some shiraz and cabernet backing it up. Most others are going to be knocked over. That said, thanks for the recommendations.

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 9:45 AM


I find that the alcohol levels in the wines you recommend are accentuated by the spices in the Indian and Thai curries -- while you can certainly taste the big fruit, the wine is unbalanced by the taste of alcohol as well.

My preference is for higher-acid much lower-alcohol white wines with the spiciest foods like Austrian or Alsatian Riesling. Those which have a slight sweetness to them seem to complement the spice very well.

CHE wrote:
07.10.06 at 10:07 AM

Thanks--I will pay attention for alcohol flavors with the spiciest curries, and try a riesling. The only whites I've tried against curries have been stronger grapefruity sauvignon blancs, and I haven't thought that they weren't a great choice. If you're going to go for that kind of balancing, where wine functions as a kind of relief from the spice attack (rather than, as I think zinfandels do in such circumstances, contributing to the flavor explosion), the s-blancs haven't seemed to me a very economical choice, as carbonated water with lemon does just as well. But I'll try rieslings and see how that goes, whether they contribute something interesting. Thanks.

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 10:12 AM

Definitely make sure to stick with European rieslings. While there are some American ones that will fit the bill, most American Riesling will not do.

JR wrote:
07.10.06 at 12:58 PM

Which wines are not "Food Wines"? The ones recommended to be drank by themselves... can you give me some examples? Thank you!

Steve wrote:
07.10.06 at 3:40 PM

Eek!! No dry rose! (And it's summertime, too.) That's a wine that I just wouldn't like to be without. Flexible, food-friendly, pretty low in alcohol--ah well, to each his own. I certainly share your tatse for wines that don't overwhelm all that may accompany them.

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 6:48 PM


Yes, dry rose, like Sauvignon Blanc, just barely missed being on the list. Wholeheartedly agree with you.

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 6:59 PM


Great question. There are certain wines which becauase of their alcohol levels or flavors (or, often both) will overwhelm even the heartiest foods. By overwhelm I mean that they do not work in harmony with the flavors of the food, but rather tend to dominate your senses, like a loudspeaker blaring a song over some guy softly playing guitar on the sidewalk.

Most of the big Australian Shiraz wines, a lot of California Zinfandels, and even many Cabernets are have such bold fruit flavors and such high alcohol levels (up to 16% and higher for some Zinfandels) that they are very difficult to match with wine.

That isn't to say that you couldn't drink them with food, or even that some people might not even enjoy drinking them with food, but from my perspective they're less pleasurable than many of the wines I listed.

There are of course exceptions to every rule, and with certain dishes, even the biggest wines can be food friendly, but by and large, they are much less successful than those of the ilk I mention in the article.

Alder wrote:
07.10.06 at 7:17 PM


In my day job I run a consulting company: www.hydrantsf.com. That doesn't keep me from being fairly plugged into the wine world -- certainly living in San Francisco helps. And then just imagine that I spend as much time blogging as the average American does watching TV (I don’t watch TV) and a LOT more time than the average American does drinking wine, and there you have it.

wineguy wrote:
07.10.06 at 8:49 PM

I am amused by your comment about "heavily oaked California Chardonnay." What a stereotype! My daughter actually prefers these wines, and it is getting harder and harder to find them for her. Most of what they are making around here now is "naked Chard" -- unoaked and in some case with no secondary fermentation. I had one the other day that tasted more like Chenin Blanc than Chardonnay. Where are you getting these over-oaked wines from, anyway?

Alder wrote:
07.11.06 at 9:24 AM


Indeed it is a stereotype, but it is also true. Most California Chardonnays still have heavy oak signatures. They have retreated from their extremes of 5 years ago, but they still have way more oak than their European counterparts. I enjoy these wines for what they are, but they don't pair as well with foods as those with little oak. While Santa Barbara may be leaning back towards the unoaked style, certainly most Napa Chardonnays are still in that paradigm, as are most Sonoma Chards.

I buy my wine from lots of places, and I have to look hard to find California Chardonnay that has more mineral character than oak character.

Justin wrote:
07.11.06 at 2:44 PM

Question: I noticed you mentioned bubbly in your list, I never know how to store it? Can I place it in my cellar for a brief amount of time? Or do I have to refrigerate it immediately?


Alder wrote:
07.11.06 at 2:57 PM


Champagne will story very well at cellar temperature (55 - 65 degrees fahrenheit) for as long as you want to store it. In my experience, however, it is a bit more sensitive to heat than other wines, so if you don't have someplace that has reasonable temperatures, the fridge is a good place, with the caveat that you shouldn't keep it there for very long -- most refrigerators can dry out (and shrink) the cork which will eventually lead to the spoilage of the wine.

Lenn wrote:
07.11.06 at 7:39 PM

Alder...would you agree that not ALL sparkling wine holds up to cellar time?

One winemaker in these parts, who does a great job with bubblies for several different wineries, believes that many should be consumed soon after the final disgorgement and dosage. He compares them to beer in that way.

Of course, keep in mind that this is the guy Derrick compared to Randall Graham

Alder wrote:
07.11.06 at 11:43 PM

Yes, of course you are correct. Many domestic sparkling wines as well as Cava and Muscadet don't particularly age well (though there are exceptions to both, I'm sure), but many sparkling wines are far better with some age on them in my opinion. In general, I prefer the flavors of older sparkling wines.

07.12.06 at 3:42 AM

As you say, Alder, they are exceptions, at least in the world of the catalan cava, which is more or less well known to me. For instance, the cavas which stay some months with french or american oak (from two to six months), can be perfectly drank five or six (better five) years after disgorgement date. Krypta (from A.Torelló Mata) or Lorigan, are the two better examples from catalan cavas.
All the best,

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