Pair red with fish, sip Champagne with pizza and other tips from local pros
By Dorothy Hernandez
Don’t drink red wine with fish. Save Champagne for special occasions. Just like wine itself, the “rules” that govern drinking it can feel complex. We asked an expert panel of local sommeliers, chefs and restaurateurs to share intel on everything from perfect pairings and wine regions to watch to how to pick a great bottle without even tasting it. Here are their tips.
Chef and owner of Mabel Gray in Hazel Park
Owner of Marrow and The Royce, both in Detroit
Certified sommelier and owner of Michigan By the Bottle (tasting rooms across metro Detroit)
General manager of Cantoro Trattoria in Plymouth
Tip #1: Play with pairings
You’ve probably been taught that only white wines go with fish, and reds are meant for meat. And while it’s true that a delicate Pinot Grigio pairs perfectly with a mild fish and a bold Barolo goes great with a juicy ribeye, it’s OK to drink whatever tastes best to you. “I think pairing is overrated,” says Ho.
One note: “If you’re looking for truly harmonious pairings, it’s best to find something that won’t overpower the food,” says Casey, who recommends trying pinot noir with salmon. “It’s a red that’s lighter bodied enough to not steamroll the fish, but it has enough weight to mesh well with the salmon’s high fat content and texture.” She also suggests drinking something that contrasts with your dish — so if you’re eating something in a cream sauce, find, say, a high-acid white (like a dry Riesling or Pinot Blanc) to cut through the fat.
And don’t be afraid to get creative. “I have no problem enjoying a glass of sparkling wine with a big fat steak, just for a giggle,” says Bazzy. His current favorite matchup: Sweet wine (like a German Riesling) with spicy Thai food. “I like to try funky combinations just to see what will happen.”
Tip #2: Look beyond Burgundy (and Tuscany and Rioja…)
There’s a reason why certain regions in France, Italy and Spain are so revered in the winemaking world — they’ve been perfecting the craft for centuries. But they don’t have a monopoly on delicious wines.
Bazzy says the most underrated regions include Alsace, in northeastern France — “a great alternative to Burgundian wines”; Languedoc, a coastal region in southern France that produces some of the world’s finest rosés; and Sicily, which tends to get overshadowed by better known Italian regions but which Bazzy says churns out “some really cool, indigenous varietals” like Inzolia (white) and Nerello Mascalese (red).
Ho is also a fan of Sicilian wine, specifically from the Mount Etna region. The rich soil, microclimates and active volcano result in cool, delicious wines, she says.
Other areas to watch, according to Bazzy: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, and Kakheti, Georgia, considered the birthplace of orange wine (see Tip #6).
Tip #3: Sip Champagne with pizza
Forget caviar and oysters: The sparkling wine from France’s Champagne region makes a great pairing for comfort food, too. Try it with fried chicken, where the bubbles cut against the fat, or potato chips, where the acidity balances the salt. There’s no reason to get “weird or snobby about Champagne,” says Rigato. In fact, he adds, “Champagne is actually best when it’s understated, like, ‘Oh, I got popcorn and Hungry Howie’s’ … open [a bottle of] Champagne.”
As for the best bubbly for your buck, Rigato swears by Ruinart, which can be found at the grocery store. “You got to spend 300 bucks to outclass Ruinart,” he says. “That’s the best Champagne for its price by a mile.”
Tip #4: Be label conscious
If you can’t taste a wine before buying it, look at the back of the bottle. The label “is always a good indication of quality,” says Ho. She recommends checking to see who imported the wine; certain names let her know that “the wine has been vetted before [it’s] brought into the portfolio.” If you see Kermit Lynch, Jenny & Francois, Rosenthal or Louis/Dressner, chances are your bottle will be a hit.
Tip #5: Embrace your taste
Do you feel put on the spot when ordering wine at a restaurant? (Too many pinots to choose from!) Simply tell your server what you enjoy — i.e. something light and bright or big and bold. “I think wine can be very intimidating to people,” says Ho. “So trust what you like: What flavor profiles do you like? What body weight of wines and what categories of wines you enjoy? Then you can drill down from there.”
And there’s no shame if your palate isn’t super highbrow. “People are afraid to just open up and say, ‘I like Yellowtail,’” says Rigato, referring to the wine that’s sold at retailers like Target and Walgreens. “OK, that’s cool. You like an easy, crushing New World fruity white.”
Tip #6: Try orange wine and “pÉt nat,” and don’t sleep on cider
Orange wines — which have been produced in the country of Georgia for thousands of years — are making a comeback. (The wine gets its color from its aging process, whereby the grape juice is kept in contact with the skins for up to three months.) “Orange wines are delicious, and are really good with food because there are some tannins to the wine,” says Ho. Lots of Michigan wineries are producing orange wines, too, adds Casey, who’s seen them made with everything from Riesling to Frontenac Blanc.
Another drink catching buzz: Pétillant Naturel (“pét nat” for short) — a low-alcohol, slightly sweet sparkling wine that predates Champagne, despite its current trendy status.
And don’t sleep on cider (which is technically wine because the two share a fermentation process). “I think cider is incredibly underpoured,” says Rigato, who predicts that may not be true for long. More winemakers — like Sean O’Keefe of Mari Vineyards in Traverse City — are pivoting to cider production because of “lousy grape year[s]” like 2019, says Rigato. “I think you’re going to see a lot of rules bending and breaking because of global warming,” he says. “Cider is a good example of that.”