I was talking to some people the other day about wine pairing, and told them, "When in doubt, you can rarely go wrong with sauvignon blanc or pinot noir."
This is true if you are headed to a friend's house for dinner and don't know what they're making (or question your wine and food pairing abilities). Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir go with just about anything in a pinch. And while the point of pairing food with wine is to elevate both to more than the sum of their whole, sometimes you just want a wine that won't taste disgusting with your food.
It is possible to make both food and/or wine taste disgusting with an infelicitous pairing. For example, a really big, tannic red wine paired with a delicate white fish? Not only will the wine obliterate any nuance of flavor in the fish, but the whole thing comes out tasting like you're licking sheet metal. To be avoided.
But if sauvignon blanc and pinot noir aren't your game, or if you're inclined to try something a bit more unusual, a few other grapes and wine styles pair nicely with a wide variety of foods, and can expand your "when in doubt" wine category.
In general, "when in doubt" wines have higher acidity (able to stand up to dishes ranging from heavy and creamy to light and bright), lower tannin (unlikely to clash with components of the dish, such as salt), and moderate alcohol content (won't overwhelm food, or exacerbate qualities like spice).
Sparkling wine is one example, which has the added benefit of adding a sense of occasion to the dinner. Rosé is another good candidate, a happy middle of the road between white and red, if you can't decide between the two.
But if you know you're in the mood for white wine, riesling is an excellent choice. Riesling is often overlooked because consumers are suffering from Blue Nun syndrome and are afraid the wine will be too sweet. Fear not. Even if your bottle of riesling has some residual sugar, its soaring acidity will more than balance it out.
2016 Kiona Riesling Columbia Valley ($13) has all the hallmarks of a classic riesling, with floral and stone fruit notes on the nose, especially peach and lychee, as well as tart white currant and a heady white pepper on the palate. The wine is firmly on the dry side of the spectrum, but the warm Washington state climate has produced beautifully ripe fruit, lending the wine richness without heaviness. While I might not pair it with a ribeye, the Kiona would go beautifully with anything from a summer salad to grilled pork chops.
If red wine is on your mind, you can always lean towards young, fruity, light-to-medium-bodied red wines. For me, that often means Gamay or Barbera. By no means grape names you hear every day, but surprisingly easy to find if you know where to look.
Gamay is growing a foothold in the new world, especially in Oregon, but the classic home for the wine is France's Beaujolais region. 2016 Domaine de Colette Beaujolais-Villages ($19) has more heft to it than, say, Beaujolais Nouveau, or even a regular old Beaujolais (the "Villages" designation indicating that the grapes come from a more specific, higher-quality region), but is still relatively light and meant to be consumed while full of youthful vigor.
Strawberries, blueberries, and cherry pie aromas mingle with weightier roasted meat and graphite flavors on the palate. An excellent pairing with just about any meat preparation you can think of, the wine would lend itself to hearty fish, such as tuna and salmon, or even more substantial salads.
2014 Coppo Barbera d'Asti L'Avvocata ($20) has a fairly similar flavor profile to the Beaujolais, featuring buttery raspberries and blueberries, but without the gamy notes. It leans more towards a touch of vanilla, or shortbread, without veering into "sweet" territory.
An ideal barbecue wine, it will also sing with any Italian-inspired dish you throw at it. Barbera is humble enough to enjoy with a hamburger, but noble enough to elevate just about any protein on your plate.
So next time a friend invites you over and asks you to bring a bottle, you needn't spend time in the wine shop agonizing over the choice. Keep in mind these "when in doubt" wines and spend your time enjoying wine rather than stressing about it.