Although some of the most serious wine drinkers like to buy by the case, casual drinkers usually buy a bottle or two as needed—a nice, earthy red for the ravioli fra diavolo that night, or a crisp Chardonnay for the dinner party you’re headed to.
Even casual drinkers should keep the pantry stocked with at least one bottle of these versatile wines—wines that will defuse any dining emergency and even turn a taco night into a special occasion.
Champagne. No other sparkling wine compares to a good Champagne. The drink of kings is also remarkably versatile, as perfect for taking to a dinner party as for pulling out to drink with buttered popcorn on movie night. Don’t save Champagne for a special occasion. The sooner you begin treating Champagne as an everyday drink, the sooner you’ll begin living a happier life.
Amontillado. When unexpected guests arrive, open a bag of smoked almonds, a jar of Spanish olives, some vacuum-packed Spanish Iberico ham, and a bottle of amontillado sherry. Two minutes of prep time will turn what could be a routine annoyance into a convivial celebration.
Riesling Spatlese. The loveliest of wines, a Riesling at the Spatlese level of ripeness pairs nicely with both Chinese takeout and salami on rye with mustard; its low alcohol content and touch of sweetness work well with spices. But a great Spatlese is best drunk on its own, its shimmering beauty unadorned. When you want to come home from work and “pop a bottle,” a Riesling Spatlese is the wine to reach for.
Chablis. Chablis has an almost palpable chalkiness to it because the soil it grows in was formed from prehistoric oyster shells. This makes it a perfect partner for raw oysters and other shellfish, but because Chablis is made from the Chardonnay grape, it also pairs beautifully with seafood, chicken, or veal with butter or cream in the sauce.
Bourgogne Rouge. The Japanese consider umami to be a “fifth taste,” the first four being salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. It’s most easily defined as a “delicious aftertaste” that can’t otherwise be accounted for. A lightweight red Burgundy will bring out the umami in sushi like no other wine.
Cassis Blanc. Mediterranean cuisine has been hot here for two decades, but there isn’t much talk about the wines people in the region actually drink with it. Cassis Blanc is the classic mate to bouillabaisse in Marseille, but it can pair up with any seafood or roast made with olive oil in the preparation. This versatile wine has taken a back seat in popularity to Gruner Veltliner, but Cassis Blanc is equally food-friendly, especially when young—it even works with takeout Peruvian chicken.
Côtes du Rhône. If you’re grilling a burger or broiling a steak, reach for a medium-framed Côtes du Rhône, a versatile food wine that matches well with meats not spiced beyond recognition. When the 2005 Bordeaux start trickling in this autumn, you may want to consider them, too, but you’ll never go wrong with a good bottle of Côtes du Rhône in your pantry.
Dolcetto from Piedmont. Wines made from the Dolcetto grape tend to be softer and fleshier than those from Piedmont’s Nebbiolo. But they still have plenty of power and earthiness to go with lasagna, sausages, venison, full-flavored cheeses, even pizza. The most famous village is Dolcetto d’Alba, but there are several others in the region, all with “Dolcetto d . . . ” in the name, and there is good representation in area wine stores.
Riesling Auslese. Many German-wine connoisseurs believe a great Auslese merits drinking alone, either as an aperitif or after the meal. But you’ll be surprised at how well it pairs with any type of salty-sweet dish—a spicy Thai green-papaya salad, seared foie gras with chutney, even a mango tarte Tatin for dessert.
Tawny port. When having guests over for dinner, nothing rounds out the evening quite like a glass of mellow, wood-aged tawny port. It can be enjoyed at the table with heavier desserts, including chocolate, or sipped on the deck with a good cigar. Once opened, the bottle will last a week without fading, so you can enjoy it long after your guests have told everyone what a gracious host you are.
Don Rockwell is the host and moderator of Donrockwell.com, an online forum for food lovers in the Washington area.