You can drink what you like and eat what you like, and hope that the combination works (often it will). Or you can follow a few basic rules, bearing in mind that rules are made to be broken – sometimes very successfully!
Alcoholic reds… need hearty sauces, stews or pies to mop up those monstrous 15% alcohol levels. Rich oxtail or slow-roasted lamb shank would also do the trick.
Anchovies… with their salty tang call for dry whites, though on pizza can work well with red wine (nothing too fancy).
Artichokes and Asparagus… can work with Sauvignon Blanc, especially if the wine has an asparagus nose.
Beef… appreciates Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc or Bordeaux-style blends. The plainer the meat, the lighter the wine (and vice versa).
Bobotie… calls for fruity Pinotage or off-dry Chenin.
Bolognaise sauce… is best with a robust, full-bodied red.
Bordeaux-style red blends… go well with most types of red meat, hot or cold, roasted or grilled.
Braaied meats… with a bit of charring make the tannins of even a very young red wine seem softer, the fruitier the better for handling any marinade or barbeque sauce (Pinotage and Merlot, or Shiraz for peppered steak, all served chilled). Otherwise Sauvignon Blanc is good for anything tomato-based; slightly off-dry Chenin Blanc or Riesling for smoky barbeque flavours. Arguably the best braai wine of all, though, is rosé, which combines the refreshing crispness of white wine with the depth, structure and berry flavours of red. Read more here.
Bread… can mop up pretty much anything. Click here for more on the staff of life in South Africa.
Bukettraube… makes an aromatic match for spicy salads, smoked cold meats, and even ice cream (in the case of very sweet examples).
Burgers… of the fast-food variety are best with beer. Homemade patties can do justice to a juicy red.
Bubbly… See Méthode Cap Classique.
Buttery sauces… with fish, chicken or vegetables call for Chardonnay.
Cabernet Franc… is best with spicy meat dishes – pork, veal, ham – as well as quail or chicken with tarragon, and even fish in red wine sauce.
Cabernet Sauvignon… and Cab-dominated blends seem tailor-made for red meat – steaks, roasts, casseroles, stews, venison. The heavier the sauce, the more full-bodied the wine should be. Avoid with seafood and any creamy sauces.
Cajun… spices need something that’s relatively big in flavour without being too heavy/full-bodied. A spicy Shiraz could work, but if it’s hot outside go for an aromatic white (e.g. Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc).
Caviar… with Champagne, darling. (Champagne being the bubbly made only in that specific region of France, with the Cape’s traditional-method sparkling wine called Méthode Cap Classique, MCC for short.)
Chardonnay… is remarkably versatile, with medium-bodied wines matching shellfish and most other flavourful fish (not anchovies or tuna) as well as mild curries. Heavier, wooded styles work well with buttery dishes, creamy sauces (e.g. Hollandaise), Avocado Ritz, even tripe.
Cheese… contrary to popular belief is not a great match with red wine. Safest bet is a lightly wooded Chardonnay. Click here for more specific suggestions.
Chenin Blanc… goes with seafood, spring rolls and salads (if medium bodied), while full-bodied versions go with chicken and spicy dishes. Read here for more on the remarkable diversity of Chenin styles.
Chicken… goes well with almost anything. Calls for Pinot Noir if it is roasted, Shiraz if it’s barbecued. Or play it safe with a richer white, like a wooded Chenin or Chardonnay.
Chicken livers… go down a treat with Merlot.
Chilli… is tricky but well-chilled, quaffable white blends can do the trick.
Chinese food… is “traditionally” paired with Gewürztraminer but plainer whites can work too.
Chocolate… dark chocolate, that is, can be a decadent treat with dessert wine, or port, or very occasionally a red with chocolate echoed on the palate. Click here for more on chocolate and wine.
Colombar… if dry, crisp and fresh, it calls for light salads or fish.
Crayfish… with medium-bodied Chardonnay or Chardonnay blends.
Creamy sauces… usually take Chardonnay or Chardonnay blends.
Cumin or Coriander… with lamb, for instance, calls for a spicy wine, like Shiraz.
Curry… can be matched with an aromatic white (Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc) or try a fruity Pinotage. Very hot curry, however, does prefer beer…
Dessert wine… should be as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert dish it’s served with, which is why savoury foods often provide better matches (read more here). And here are some more reasons to fall in love with dessert wines.
Duck… and goose are fairly rich, so choose an assertive red with high acidity and tannin (e.g. Shiraz or Sangiovese), or a white with high acidity and some sweetness (e.g. Riesling).
Eggs… go beautifully with bubbly (hence the enduring popularity of the Champagne Brunch). They can make still wines taste sour and, well, odd. But a dry rosé or a well-balanced white wine (neither too acidic nor too rich) can do the trick, especially when sipped after a nibble of toast.
Fish… in a light, lemony sauce calls for a light wine (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc). Full-flavoured fish or a rich, creamy fish dish needs a full-flavoured, buttery wine like Chardonnay.
Fish and chips… don’t actually need vinegar if you’re drinking wine (which cuts through the grease just as effectively). Something crisp and acidic, a Sauvignon Blanc; a dry, unwooded Chenin Blanc; an easy-drinking white blend.
Foie gras… with botrytised dessert wine, if you must eat it. Noble Late Harvest. Or Vin de Paille (Straw Wine). And Riesling can also work well.
Fusion… is usually a good bet with Semillon. Or a good Chenin or Riesling.
Game… from guinea fowl to warthog, try smoky Shiraz or fruity Pinotage.
Gammon… with its strong and salty flavours is a tricky match, particularly when it has a sweet glaze and/or fruit garnish. Look for a wine that’s fruity and tart, from an off-dry Chenin Blanc to a dry rosé. Made by a handful of producers in South Africa, Gamay is also a good match – a refreshing red bursting with fruit and crisp acidity.
Gewürztraminer… is a nice match for fresh fruit, its full flavours also making it work well with chicken, turkey and pungent cheeses. Off-dry versions go well with spicy Thai/Indonesian dishes, also with smoked meats.
Ham… see ‘gammon’
Ice cream… is an obvious match for natural sweets as well as fortified wines (e.g. Muscadel, Jerepigo). But the mouth-coating creaminess of homemade ice cream with natural ingredients can make dry wines a surprisingly good match too, depending on the fruit and spice flavours. See this article on a dedicated wine and ice cream pairing offered by Stellenbosch cellar Clos Malverne.
Indian… cuisine needs a wine to offset the heat and spices – Gewürztraminer, Riesling or fruity Chenin might pull it off. Try a Pinotage with the vindaloo.
Kidneys… can be matched with a light, fruity Pinot Noir – or a Merlot, if the gravy is reduced.
Lamb… is great with medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Roast rack of lamb tends to prefer a full-bodied Bordeaux red variety or blend (and go easy on the mint sauce…). Nebbiolo has lots of acidity to marry with the slight sweetness of the meat.
Malbec… makes a slightly unusual match for light stews, bredies, bobotie, roasts and Italian food.
Mature red… is best served with simple food that won’t overwhelm the wine.
Merlot… if it’s good, it’s great with rack of lamb, duck, quail, cold meats or carpaccio. Since it generally has less tannin and structure than Cabernet, it needs milder dishes (mushrooms, wild rice). Avoid with pork.
Méthode Cap Classique… goes well with almost everything, not only when there’s something to celebrate, and especially when it’s brut (dry).
Mourvèdre… pairs well with barbequed chops and roast duck or lamb.
Muscat de Frontignan… with its high levels of sugar and acidity, can handle anything from poached pears to foie gras.
Mushrooms… come in so many guises; try Pinot Noir or a medium-bodied Merlot. Click here for an article on hunting for wild mushrooms.
Oysters… cry out for dry sparkling wine, though some prefer crisp Sauvignon Blanc. But go easy on the Tabasco… Click here to find out why every oenophile should also be an ostreaphile.
Pasta… with a cream-based sauce needs a light Chardonnay, Chenin or Semillon to cut through the richness. The acidity of a tomato-based sauce calls for an acidic wine, ideally a Sangiovese or Zinfandel.
Pickles… are best avoided when you’re drinking wine.
Picnics… cry out for refreshment: the citrus fruit and minerality of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or an unwooded Chenin Blanc; the fresh melon and strawberry flavours of a dry rosé; the lightness and lower alcohol of a Pinot Noir; bubbly to raise a picnic to another level altogether. Avoid oak and don’t go for anything too complex: all subtlety will be lost in the fresh air and sunshine. And screwcaps were surely invented for picnics? Click here for tips on picnicking in wine country.
Pinotage… suits game, bobotie, curries, spare ribs, pepper steak, boerewors… The more full-bodied the wine, the more full-flavoured the dish can be. A lighter, fruitier style can go nicely with braaied snoek and grape jam. Click here for more on the controversial but proudly South African cultivar. Read more about the commercial and competition success of Pinotage here.
Pinot Grigio… tends to be an easy-drinking wine for summer quaffing and light pasta, fish or chicken dishes. In a fuller-bodied style, it partners well with braaied crayfish, even chilli prawns.
Pinot Noir… is a truly food-friendly wine, pairing well with salmon, tuna, duck, chicken, ham, veal, risotto, pasta… A richly flavoured wine can even accompany a hearty soup. Not great with cream or sweet, rich vegetables like butternut or sweet potato. Read more about the so-called ‘heartbreak grape’ here.
Pork… is fairly versatile. If you can’t choose between red or white, go for pink: a dry Blanc de Noir or Rosé. Fruity Chenin works well with apple sauce. If you’re serving sauerkraut on the side, go for something more acidic – a Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.
Port… goes well with nuts, blue cheese, walnut tart, fruity Christmas cake, and chocolate.
Quail… goes well with Pinot Noir, or Shiraz if the sauce is reduced or spicy.
Relish… addicts swear by Shiraz. But do see “pickles”.
Riesling… is remarkably food-friendly, cutting through fat (think foie gras or pâté) and spice (from local specialities like bobotie or smoked snoek to exotic Thai and Chinese dishes). Sweeter styles pair well with fruit, from fruity sauces to apple or citrus-based desserts.
Rosé and Blanc de Noir… on the dry side can substitute for crisp, dry white wines to pork and salads. The off-dry style can complement mild curries and lightly spiced food. Read more about pink wine here.
Salads… tend to marry well with lemony Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin or Semillon.
Salmon… and bubbly? Why not! Or a medium-bodied Chardonnay.
Salt… doesn’t just add flavour to food, it also makes wines taste milder, fruitier and less acidic.
Sardines… and other oily fish warrant crisp whites with good acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc… is crisp and fresh so cuts through the richness of oily or buttery dishes, stands up to many salads, and goes well with most fish dishes (from raw to smoked). Good with asparagus spears and citrus-based sauces or vinaigrettes, even tomato-based dishes. But avoid cream (think about what happens when you mix milk and lemon juice…).
Seafood sauces… need a dry white.
Semillon… is a versatile food wine, from flavoursome chicken and pork dishes to Thai and salads. Very good with most seafood, and usually a great match for creamy sauces.
Shellfish… likes to party with a good Chardonnay or a top Chenin – and certain Sauvignon Blancs.
Sherry… dried Fino is a fantastic match with fish. Can also work with soup (where most wines get diluted).
Shiraz and Shiraz-based blends… are great with any red meat dishes that have spicy (or sweet) overtones. Lighter blends complement curries and Cape Malay dishes, carpaccios and charcuterie. Heavier blends work well with oxtail, goulash, pepper steaks and venison.
Shrimps… call for light white wine or dry bubbly.
Snails… with garlic like a wine that’s uncomplicated and inexpensive.
Snoek… with jam, off the braai? Think Pinotage (and here are some braai tips from Kanonkop proprietor Johann Krige). Smoked snoek? Choose Riesling.
Soup… is notoriously difficult to match with wine, especially if it’s very liquid). But a thick and hearty one could work with a richly flavoured Pinot Noir, and many swear by wooded Chardonnay with butternut soup.
Spare Ribs… could call for a spicy Shiraz or a fruity Pinotage.
Sparkling… Brut with oysters, smoked salmon, shrimp, sushi…
Sweet-and-sour… noodle-based dishes call for Riesling or Chenin.
Steak… demands Cabernet Sauvignon or a Cab-based blend (enough flavour to stand up to the beef; enough tannin to cut through any fat). Pepper steak? Rather go for Shiraz.
Sushi… pairs well with Sauvignon Blanc and dry rosé.
Sweet Dessert Wines… such as Noble Late Harvest, Natural Sweet or Straw Wine can be stunning with foie gras, or with desserts ranging from fruit tarts to Malva pudding (personal favourite: lemon tart).
Sweet Fruit, or Honey Glazing… try Riesling.
Thai… food can be married to Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Chenin Blanc.
Tinta Barocca… works nicely with braaied meat in fruity or spicy marinades, also with peppered cheeses.
Tomatoes… need a wine with bright acidity (Sauvignon Blanc). For a rich, tomato-based sauce, look for a Sangiovese or Zinfandel.
Tuna and Yellowtail… and other “meaty” fish can go nicely with light- to medium-bodied reds, especially Pinot Noir.
Turkey… with rich stuffing and cranberry sauce? Go for a fruity red, a full-bodied Shiraz. Otherwise Chardonnay.
Viognier… can complement chicken and fish dishes, Asian foods that don’t have too much chilli, and creamy, reduced sauces.
Zinfandel… with its medley of intense dried-fruit flavours is a great accompaniment to game, spicy dishes and rich sauces.