Most good sommeliers have a couple of ultra-versatile wines on their lists that pair beautifully with a wide range of dishes. Customers can happily share a bottle even when one person orders ceviche, say, and another gets a steak. Typically, these are bottles that don't hit the extremes of wine style, neither ultra-acidic nor fiercely tannic; nor do they tend to be terribly expensive, as sommeliers don't want to shock their guests with the prices. Instead they are generally subtler, moderately priced bottles, chosen to fit the entire palette of flavors on a chef's menu. What's handy is that diners can remember the key wines to look for and search them out on other wine listsnot to mention stock up on them for meals at home. Here, picks from five top wine directors at restaurants with very different styles of food.
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Versatile Wines: Italian Food
Managing partner Derek Wilson, who runs the wine program at chef Marc Orfaly's Roman-influenced restaurant, opts for a light sparkling rosé when looking for adaptability. "Lately I've been pouring a wine called Secco, a Pinot Noir blend," he says. In general, sparkling rosés tend to have a bit more heft and richness than sparkling whites, making them good with main courses as well as starters.
Derek Wilson's Pick
NV Sorelle Casa Secco Italian Bubbles Rosé ($14) Two Italian sisters joined forces to create this dry sparkling wine. A blend of 60 percent Glera (the grape of Prosecco) and 40 percent Pinot Noir, it's brightly fruity, with a scent of fresh strawberries.
Bisol Jeio Cuvée Rosé Brut ($16)
Lini 910 Labrusca Lambrusco Rosé ($16)
Mionetto Sergio Rosé ($20)
Versatile Wines: Asian Food
O Ya, Boston
For chef Tim Cushman's elegant take on Japanese cuisine, his beverage director (and wife) Nancy Cushman's choice is Grüner Veltliner. "It has a clarity of flavor that complements our menu; plus its nice acidity and spiciness match well with shiso and wasabi." Grüner is also a go-to wine for other Asian cuisines, from Chinese to Thai.
Nancy Cushman's Pick
2009 Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz Grüner Veltliner ($31) The alpine pebbles of the high Steinsetz vineyard help give this brisk white from Austria's Kamptal region a distinctive minerality.
2010 Broadbent Grüner Veltliner ($14)
2010 Stadt Krems Grüner Veltliner Kremstal ($16)
2009 Högl Steinterrassen Grüner Veltliner Federspiel ($25)
Versatile Wines: Seafood
GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago
"I go for a dry Chenin Blanc like Foxen's," says general manager and wine director Chris Haisma at chef Giuseppe Tentori's new seafood bar (left). Full-bodied yet crisp, Chenin goes with everything from rich scallops to delicate sole. If dry bottlings from California are hard to find, look to France's Loire Valley.
Chris Haisma's Pick
2009 Foxen Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard Chenin Blanc ($22) Old-vine fruit makes this Central Coast California white particularly aromatic and complex.
2009 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc ($12)
2009 Vinum Cellars California Chenin/Vio ($12)
2009 Leo Steen Saini Farms Chenin Blanc ($18)
Versatile Wines: French Food
Fleur de Lys, San Francisco
At chef Hubert Keller's restaurant, sommelier Marcus Garcia notes that people often turn to Pinot Noir as a fallback, "but there are many other choices that are fruity and earthy with a bit of attitude. I'm fond of Châteauneuf-du-Pape out of foudres (oak casks) or concrete tanks."
Marcus Garcia's Pick
2007 Château de la Font du Loup Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($43) Named for a spring where, legend has it, wolves came to drink, this spicy wine has an earthy finish.
2007 Domaine de la Charbonnière Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($43)
2009 Domaine Paul Autard Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($52)
2007 Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($55)
Versatile Wines: Spanish Food
Jaleo, Las Vegas
"Jaleo is all about tapas," says beverage director Lucas Paya about chef José Andrés's food. "Meals here always have a huge array of flavors, and the wine I like best for pairing with them is dry sherry." Sherry can range from austere, almost salty styles, like manzanilla and fino, to richer amontillados and palo cortados.
Lucas Paya's Pick
NV Hidalgo La Gitana Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada ($27) Though sherries are usually vineyard blends, this single-vineyard bottling has manzanilla's classic seaside scent, with an impressively long finish.
Alvear Amontillado Montilla ($16)
González Byass Tio Pepe Fino Sherry ($18)
La Cigarrera Manzanilla Sherry ($11/375 ml)
Versatile Wines: Sommelier Crushes
Here, a few top wine pros reveal the wines and wine regions they're most excited about right now.
Sommelier: Pascaline Lepeltier, Rouge Tomate, NYC
New Passion: France's Jura: "Jura is a magical place. Chardonnays like Ganevat's remind me of great Puligny-Montrachet."
Bottle to Try: 2008 Jean-François Ganevat Les Grands Teppes Vieilles Vignes ($46)
Sommelier: Drew Hendricks, Pappas Restaurants, Houston
New Passion: Texas Wines: "There's supercool stuff in Texasboth in the Hill Country and up in the High Plains region."
Bottle to Try: 2009 Sandstone Cellars VII ($30)
Sommelier: Geoff Kruth, Farmhouse Inn; Forestville, CA
New Passion: Sicilian reds: #34;With its unique grape varieties and volcanic soil, Mt. Etna may be the next great terroir of southern Italy."
Bottle to Try: 2007 Biondi Etna Rosso Outis ($35)
Sommelier: Chris Deegan, Nopa, San Francisco
New Passion: California Syrah: "California Syrah producers are dialing back ripenessthe result is extremely compelling!"
Bottle to Try: 2008 Qupé Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Syrah ($35)
Sommelier Nightmare Pairings
"Red wine and chocolate! And people insist on it. It's like, 'OK, I've decided I want to rub sandpaper on my face.' It's that bad."
Drew Hendricks; Pappas Restaurants, Houston
"Lately, people are ordering a huge California Syrah, then, while I'm getting it, they order oysters! It's my No. 1 shoot-myself-in-the-head situation."
Seth Liebman; Michael's, New York