Sommelier Roundtable: What’s the Most Versatile Wine?

8 sommeliers divulge their go-to bottles when faced with a diverse mix of flavors and palates

Sommelier Roundtable: What’s the Most Versatile Wine?
Beverage director Robin Wright used to turn to red Burgundy for tables ordering fish and meat dishes; now that she’s at Italian restaurant Ci Siamo, she’s suggesting Nerello Mascalese reds and Montepulciano rosé. (Giada Paoloni)
Apr 29, 2022

A truly versatile wine—one that pairs as harmoniously with tuna crudo as with steak—is a sommelier’s best friend. Confronted daily with the task of matching a table of diners with the right bottle to complement a wide range of flavors, the pros rely on wines that have a lot of flexibility and crowd appeal. Wine Spectator asked eight leading wine directors to share the wines they turn to when the menu selections—and wine drinkers’ palate preferences—run the gamut.

Wine Spectator What’s the wine you turn to most often for its versatility in pairing?

Brian Casey, beverage manager / sommelier, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa

Grenache is my go-to. I love the aromatics, the red fruit, the herbs and licorice. Lighter expressions pair well with chicken, pork and duck, while deeper versions will stand up to lamb and grilled beef, or even a good burger with bacon. Don’t even get me started on Grenache Blanc. If you have never had a great Grenache Blanc with a dish that featured fennel and green apples, you are truly missing out. And if it’s chocolate you crave, a Banyuls Grenache-based dessert wine is the perfect pairing. Two of my favorite California Grenache winemakers would be Angela Osborne from A Tribute to Grace and Casey Graybehl, a.k.a. “The Grenachista.”

 Portrait of Alexandria Sarovich in front of a bar with wine glasses in the background
Alexandria Sarovich looks for wines that will go with Little Saint’s plant-based dishes. (Manali Anne)

Alexandria Sarovich, wine director, Little Saint, Healdsburg, Calif.

Rosé Champagne. It pairs well throughout an entire meal, even through and after dessert, which is a great way to tie off a special evening. After a meal, a guest might be feeling quite sated, and this wine refreshes the palate so the dining experience can continue. It also prolongs the celebratory energy. It’s incredibly versatile with food; I love to pair it with roasted carrots from the farm and crunchy rice and red cabbage as well as our cedar-smoked, yuba-wrapped tofu.

Hugo Bensimon, beverage director, Grill 23 & Bar, Grand Award winner, Boston

Beaujolais. You can choose a bottle that’s very crispy and delicious for when it’s hot outside. Or you can select more “serious” offerings, such as Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon, to pair with a medium or heavy dish.

Robin Wright, beverage director, Ci Siamo, New York City

When I worked as a sommelier at [now closed] NoMad, red Burgundy was my go-to most versatile wine because it paired well with fish and meat—especially the roast chicken. While at Ci Siamo, though I'm lucky enough to carry plenty of red Burgundy, I find myself gravitating towards Etna Rosso as my new go-to; it pairs especially well with some of chef Hillary Sterling's hits, from her trout to her lamb. Like Pinot Noir, the Nerello Mascalese has a soft, fruity character, which makes it juicy and bright for the trout, but it also contains grippy tannin and beautiful acidity and minerality.

For pasta, especially tomato-based, I suggest a very particular and versatile rosé: The De Fermo Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo 2020, made from 100 percent Montepulciano, is one of the most salty-mineral wines I’ve ever tasted. That makes it especially food-friendly.

Fahd Alaoui, food and beverage manager, The Deer Path Inn, Best of Award of Excellence winner in Lake Forest, Ill.

I have had great success with suggesting Spanish Garnacha to our guests over the years, particularly for large tables where it has something for every member of the party and works with the diversity of our menu. The Alto Moncayo Veraton from D.O. Campo de Borja, Spain, for example, is delicious with our sushi rolls as well as our filet mignon and short rib garganelli. I have found Pinot Noir lovers and Cabernet aficionados all love Garnacha, and people often thank me for this slightly off-the-usual-path recommendation.

Shelley Lindgren, co-owner / wine director, A16, Best of Award of Excellence winner in San Francisco

I have had so much fun exploring southern Italian grapes and styles. Fiano di Avellino has been a favorite recommendation and a regular go-to personal choice for versatility for many years. Quintodecimo Exultet Fiano di Avellino came onto the scene from renowned enology professor and champion of the indigenous grapes of Campania, Luigi Moio, and his wines have balance, complexity and verve. It has a backbone of acidity and delicate minerality that works with oysters, crudo, vinaigrette, asparagus and even artichokes. But it also has structure and subtle tones of green almonds and natural tannins to stand up to a braised meat dish or lasagna verde. There are also some lighter reds, like Salandra Piedirosso, that I'm pairing with our local halibut over fregola and fava beans currently.

Arthur Hon, beverage director, The Modern, Grand Award winner in New York City

When one person at a table wants white and another wants red, but they only want to drink one bottle, I find myself recommending skin-contact white wines. Often, these are wines that have seen various degrees of oxidation intentionally. Depending on how adventurous the guests are, I adjust the level of skin maceration and funkiness to the group. I may suggest a clean and fun skin-macerated Ribolla Gialla from Steve Matthiasson or a forward and in-your-face Sancerre produced by Sébastien Riffault.

Francis P. Schott, co-owner and beverage director, Stage Left Steak, Best of Award of Excellence winner in New Brunswick, N.J.

I have long believed that Riesling was the most versatile wine for food—with the exception of rare red meat. Two years ago, I was having a conversation with Johannes Selbach, of Selbach Oster, and he informed me that it's quite fashionable now to drink older Auslese with steak. We have quite a few such Rieslings in our cellar, so the next night I ordered a medium-rare porterhouse at our restaurant and opened two bottles: a 2006 Selbach Oster Riesling Zeltinger Schlossberg Schmitt Riesling Auslese and a 2010 Dr. Lippold Urziger Wurzgarten Alte Reben Riesling Auslese. I almost fell off my chair. They positively sang. I now 100 percent believe that Riesling is the most versatile wine in the world. Not every Riesling goes with everything, but you can find a Riesling from somewhere to go with just about anything.

People Sommelier Service Restaurant Awards Pairings Red Wines White Wines Sparkling Wines Rosé Grenache / Garnacha Riesling Gamay France Spain Italy Champagne beaujolais Burgundy Germany

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