There's a first time for everything. If you've shied away from ordering and tasting wine in a fine restaurant, you're in for a treat. It's a wonderful ritual because it puts you in the position of ushering in the pleasure of the grape to your lucky dinner companions.
The following is a basic guide to which wines complement which foods. Of course, the only real rule is to drink what you like; eventually you'll develop your own inner wine list.
Champagne or Sparkling Wine
Perhaps the most versatile wines of all, they make great aperitifs, and the refreshing, palate-cleansing effect complements spicy, fried, salty or ethnic foods. Sparkling wine varies in sweetness and is thus appropriate for different courses.
Brut: Very dry, best with hors d'oeuvres, appetizers, or fish, shellfish, and chicken dishes (sparkling wine and lobster are excellent together).
Extra Dry: In the world of sparkling wine, extra dry actually means the wine is less dry than Brut. Confusing as this may be, Extra Dry can be paired with the above dishes or accompany dessert or on its own.
Semi-Dry: Slightly sweeter and fruitier than Extra Dry, these are beautiful brunch wines with salty or savory dishes. They are also deliciously soft and sweet by themselves.
Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux: Very sweet champagnes, usually reserved for dessert courses only.
Big Reds: Great with steak, hearty beef, and pork dishes. Big reds include Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhone reds, Syrah/Shiraz and Zinfandel.
Medium or Soft Reds: Pair with lamb, veal dishes, lighter pork dishes such as tenderloin, and red-sauced pasta. Medium/Soft reds include Merlot, Chianti and other Italian reds, Burgundy, French Pinot Noir and wines from Rioja, Spain.
Light Reds: Excellent with the above meats plus roasted duck, turkey, chicken, and salmon and tuna steaks. These wines include Beaujolais and California Pinot Noir.
Rose: Whether still or sparkling, try it as an aperitif or with light chicken dishes, main-course salads, omelets, and Mexican or spicy foods.
Big Whites: Order with poultry, pasta, fish steaks, and the lightest veal dishes. Big whites include White Burgundy and California Chardonnays.
Medium Whites: Great with poultry, fish, shellfish, and pasta dishes with clear or white sauces. These wines include Chardonnay, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley), White Bordeaux, New Zealand whites and Pinot Blanc.
Savory or Light Whites: Best for delicate fish dishes, vegetarian dishes, or Pacific Rim cuisine. Savory and light whites include Riesling, Pinot Grigio and other Italian whites, White Zinfandel, Albarino and other Spanish whites, Gewurztraminer.