Taking your own bottle to a dinner party is a tricky business. Dashing to a convenience store for some plonk that’s below ¥1,000 might save cash, but it won’t save your blushes if the stuff acts like paint-stripper on the palate, ruining the meal and your chances of being invited back. Even if you do splash out, a high-class Bordeaux might stomp all over the subtle flavors of carefully-prepared sushi, like Godzilla blundering into a geisha’s tea party.
Never fear, disaster can be avoided: By following a simple guide of wine-matching dos and don’ts (and asking in advance what’s on the menu), you can find the perfect complement to your host’s meal and their hospitality.
The first rule is one of the fundamentals of wine-matching: Marry white with whites and reds with reds — that is, white meats such as chicken go with light whites, while red meats such as beef go with powerful reds.
Like all matters of etiquette, what not to do is the most important thing. It’s all about balance; fresh pink langoustines wouldn’t stand a chance against the powerful punch of a Co^tes du Rho^ne, but put them beside a bone-dry Chablis (try a 2006 Laboure Roi; ¥2,940 from Wine Market Party) and they’ll positively sparkle. Conversely, a fat juicy steak deserves to be squared up against a rich Bordeaux (try a 2005 Chate^au Bellevue; ¥1,995 from Wine Market Party).
Then there are all the various shades between, with the rule of thumb being that the darker the meat, the fuller the flavor. A light, Italian Chardonnay (such as a 2006 Batasiolo; ¥1,000 from Yamaya) has the right levels of fruit to combine with the darker meat of a tuna steak. The fuller flavors of salmon, though, might even require you to cross tentatively over into red with a light Pinot Noir (a 2005 Spy Valley; ¥2,700 from Nissin World Delicatessen).
And don’t forget to ask in advance about sauces and dressings. A powerfully acidic sauce can upset the apple (or cranberry) cart, so you have to fight fire with fire with a strongly acidic wine to counterbalance things. White varieties such as Chenin Blanc usually work well. In the case of Japanese sauces like teriyaki, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Co^tes du Rho^ne all work well.
Which brings us to the thorny problem of how to combine wines with Asian foods. The old school would rather maintain strict gastronomic segregation along geographic lines. A red Burgundy, is just right for boeuf bourguignon, because the two evolved together over centuries. But it’s worth noting that bourguignon’s recipe includes generous lashings of the wine, so of course the dish and wine are bound to fit together.
As with people, the most boring couples are those who are made to be together, I prefer pairings with a little more spark. Famous odd couples that have spanned the East-West gastronomic divide are Prosecco and gyoza dumplings (this heavyweight sparkler lifts the taste of the pork filling heavenwards) and Riesling and tempura (sweetness to temper the slight stodginess of the batter). Nonvintage Prosecco Pronol (¥2,090 from Seijo Ishii) and a 2005 Alsace Hugel Riesling (¥2,000 from Nissin World Delicatessen) are to be recommended here.
It’s still a controversial topic, but many wine writers believe that Riesling also works well with sushi — though it’s generally safer to stick with sake.
However, if you’re being served spicier foods from other parts of Asia, remember a few simple rules. First, spicy grapes such as Pinot Grigio and Gewyrztraminer (for whites) and Shiraz and Zinfandel (for reds) go well with hotter dishes. Second, beware of high alcohol — it’ll cut through the flavors and, possibly, your stomach lining. Third, serve the beverage cold to contrast nicely with the spiciness. Finally, oak tastes appalling against all those spices, so make sure the wine hasn’t been aged in oak barrels.
Rounding off your meal can be more difficult than you might think. It’s notoriously tricky to match wines with cheeses or sweets. With cheeses, the sheer range of flavors across different varieties causes difficulties. Fortunately (or unfortunately for many) good cheeses made in Japan tend to be rare, apart from the notable exception of creamy and delicate Hokkaido Camembert, which can be comfortably paired off with a soft Californian Pinot Noir (try a 2006 Calera; ¥4,000 from Nissin World Delicatessen).
If you’ve already made the trek to get some decent wine, you may as well splash out on some quality dairy produce, as many of Tokyo’s better wine stores such as Nissin World Delicatessen and Wine Market Party also stock a wide range of imported cheese.
If you have a stronger palate, you might like to indulge in a decadent blue-veined Stilton and a heady snifter of port (Wine Market Party do a decent half bottle of nonvintage Fonseca for ¥2,110). Port, or any fortified wine, will usually serve as a steady companion to a dessert, though in the case of chocolate cake — which tends to coat the palate — you’d do better with a sharp Muscat (try a 2005 Yarden Muscat Golan Heights Winery; ¥2,278 from Millesimes).
Once you’ve mastered these rules, it’s time to get creative. As I discovered when my grandmother introduced the joys of eating Christmas cake with Cheddar cheese, surprising taste combinations can set off sublime reactions in your taste buds. As long as the weight, acidity and spiciness of a combination are balanced and working in harmony, you can mix and match flavors to your heart’s content.
With a whole galaxy of colorful wine and food pairings to explore, you can now boldly go where no bring-your-own- bottle dinner party has ever been before.
From the pros
For those of us whose dinner party invitations seem to have got lost in the post, it might be worth popping down to CoZmo Cafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward for a wine-pairing night there. On the first Friday of every month, four wines are matched with four different dishes for a reasonable ¥4,800. April’s event pits the wines of Burgundy against a select group of American ones, so get ready to square them up and pair them off. (to book reservations, call  3407-5166 or send an e-mail to to CoZmo Cafe directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want someone else to do the legwork of selecting a bottle for you, then get down to Vinpicoeur in Ginza (4-3-4 Ginza;  3567-4122; www.auxamis.com). They possess one of the most comprehensive French wine lists in Tokyo, which complements their unique cuisine that largely consists of French cuts of meat grilled on sticks (a la yakitori). Let their sommelier choose a fitting wine from their 700-plus selection — a favorite among customers is the yoshida pork (¥380 a skewer) coupled with a bottle of uncomplicated southern French Cinsault (¥3,980). Despite the hellish clouds of smoke and huge pig’s carcass strung up behind the counter (don’t worry, he’s plastic), you’ll think you’ve died and gone to your own foodie heaven.
If you’re keen to broaden your knowledge of wine styles without wearing out your poor liver in the process, now is the perfect time to enroll at Academie du Vin, sommeliers Steven Spurrier’s prestigious wine school ( 3486-7769). The course, which is taught in English and titled “Wine Basics for Wine Enthusiasts,” starts in April and covers wine tasting, grape varieties and which foods they work well with, as well as wine regions, viticulture and wine making. This is where Tokyo’s aspiring sommeliers learn their trade, so there’s no better place to take up the noble art of wine-and-food matchmaking.