Nathan’s Food and Wine Crash Course

What to serve at your next get-together? REAL SIMPLE. REAL LIFE. food expert Nathan Lyon offers up an A to Z guide to vino―no sniffing, swirling, or spitting required―and recommends ten bottles that won’t break the bank.

Photo by  Anna Williams

Cabernet Sauvignon (Red)

What it is: Known as the king of reds, this bold wine has flavors that cover the spectrum from green bell pepper to fresh tobacco to ripe berries. (Choose carefully; it can overpower the flavors of your food.)
Goes best with: Rich proteins like steak, burgers, roast beef, lamb, and game meats, plus stewed dishes and aged or strong-smelling cheeses like Brie.
Nathan's pick:  2004 1221 Cabernet Sauvignon, $20


Chardonnay (White)

What it is: A rich white that commonly has pineapple and mango flavors and a buttery, oaky finish.
Goes best with: Grilled chicken and fish, creamy sauces (including over pasta), shellfish, veal and pork, rabbit, ripe, and creamy cheeses like Brie and Camembert.
Nathan's pick:  2006 Truchard Chardonnay, $30


Malbec (Red)

What it is: Grown frequently in Argentina, this robust red resembles Cabernet Sauvignon but with a slightly softer edge and flavors of dried, dark fruit such as black currants and plum.
Goes best with: Grilled meats and sausages, steaks, lamb, pizza, hard cheeses such as Parmesan.
Nathan's pick:  2004 Familia Zuccardi Q Malbec, $22


Merlot (Red)

What it is: A low-acidity medium-bodied wine that often tastes of plum, berries and currants, it famously took a bruising in the wine-snob movie Sideways.
Goes best with: Duck, pasta, red meat, smoked or grilled foods, pork, mushrooms, pizza, chocolate, and full-flavored cheeses.
Nathan's pick:  2005 Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Merlot, $22


Pinot Grigio (White)

What it is: Also known as Pinot Gris, this wine tends to be light, dry, and crisp.
Goes best with: Shellfish and most light seafood dishes, salads, light pastas, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses.
Nathan's pick:  2007 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, $26


Pinot Noir (Red)

What it is: A lighter-bodied red with cherry and raspberry flavors.
Goes best with: Grilled foods, chicken, salmon, ahi tuna, pork, mild cheeses like Swiss, Feta, and Gruyère.
Nathan's pick:  2006 Tower Brook Pinot Noir, $25


Riesling (White)

What it is: A wine that can be sweet or dry depending on the winemaker, it tends to be fruity, floral, and light.
Goes best with: Barbecued seafood, pork, shellfish, summer fruit, creamy cheeses, moderately spicy ethnic foods like Thai and Chinese, salads.
Nathan's pick:  2006 Allan Scott Riesling, $15


Sauvignon Blanc (White)

What it is: Also known as Fumé Blanc, this citrusy, grassy wine is traditionally light, crisp, and refreshing.
Goes best with: White or light fish, grilled vegetables, oysters, fruit, mild cheeses, chicken.
Nathan's pick:  2004 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, $48


Sparkling Wine (White)

What it is: Wine that is specially fermented to produce carbonation, bubbly hails from all over the world―but only bottles that come from the Champagne region in France can be called the C-word. The sweetness of sparkling wine varies based on the grape variety used and how much sugar is added during the fermentation process, ranging from Brut Natural (the driest) to Doux (very sweet).
Goes best with: Appetizers, spicy dishes, shellfish (especially lobster and scallops), caviar, salty foods, sushi, and fruit.
Nathan's pick:  Moet & Chandon Champagne White Star, $32


Zinfandel (Red)

What it is: A versatile wine that can be light and fruity or heavy and robust depending on the winemaker and often has flavors of raspberry, blackberry, anise, and pepper.
Goes best with:  Richly sauced dishes, barbecued meats, pizza, pasta, red meat, turkey, game meats, spicy foods.
Nathan's pick:  2006 Alexander Valley Vineyards Sin Zin Zinfandel, $14