It wasn’t long ago that I decided to set out to learn more about wine.

As I immersed myself in the subject, I begrudgingly discovered there was more to learn than I ever wanted. The simple fact is, I, like most people, wanted a few simple, easy-to-follow rules to pair wine with my food. Much to my surprise, I learned that a lifetime of eating experiences gives us all the basic tools we can use to understand food flavor combinations and wine compatibility.

Instinctively we know that corn-on-the cob tastes best with butter. Or a splash of lemon on seafood magically improves its taste. Just as any chef will tell you that seasoning food with salt will brighten its flavor, a wine professional will tell you the best way to boost a food’s flavor is with wine.

Dave Burkhard, general manager at Mount Hill Tavern Restaurant and Bar in Harrisburg, is currently in a sommelier certification program. He says, “You don’t have to know the fancy wine terms to tell your wine professional what it is that you like about wine. My job is to listen to what you say and then guide you in your choice to find the best match for your taste.” He adds that the wine buyers for Pennsylvania’s Wine and Spirits Shoppes can do the same thing.

When you don’t happen to have a wine professional by your side, there are three basic concepts you can use to pair food with wine: balance, complement and contrast. Just as you might attempt to balance the richness of a sauce with a rich cut of meat, or pair the distinct flavors of ethnic dishes, or serve unexpected flavors together, wine can be thought of as an ingredient and used in much the same way. “Fortunately,” Burkhard says, “many wine labels now include a description of flavor, style or body that can help you make your selection.”

So what of the old adage “red with meat, white with fish?” This is where the concept of balance came into being. Balance is about matching the mouth-feel of each part of the pair. No one component of the pairing should feel heavier (or lighter) in the mouth than the other. Delicate foods such as mild, flaky fish balance well with wines that have a lighter feel in the mouth. Heavier foods, including many meats such as beef, duck or lamb, go well with full-bodied wines. This idea of balance is especially true with dessert: You serve rich, concentrated wines with rich, luscious foods.

If you want to have some real fun with pairing, play with the flavors in your food and wine and pick a common (complementing) flavor in both. Syrah, for example, known for its peppery notes, would be complemented by steak encrusted with pepper, or served with a sauce au poivre. Then, when you are ready to be adventurous, look to contrast a predominant flavor in your food with the flavor of your wine. Think of using a slightly sweet wine, perhaps a Viognier, to contrast a cuisine with a bit of spice, like Thai or dishes that use the now popular Chinese Five Spice. Or, you might even try pairing an old vine Zinfandel, which is known for its rich cherry notes, with vanilla ice cream.

For those who think even these basics are too much to remember, Natalie MacLean, who publishes one of the largest wine e-newsletters at nataliemaclean.com, offers an online and downloadable (in just three clicks) Drinks Matcher widget that answers questions from “which wine tastes best with pork chops in a maple glaze?” to “does rosemary-grilled halibut invite red or white wine?” MacLean suggests that “the protein you choose is often the vehicle for flavor in a dish. Whether you add herbs, sauces or other seasoning, consider this first when matching your wine.” You can search the Matcher to pair meat, pasta, seafood, vegetarian dishes, pizza, takeout, sauces, herbs, cheese or dessert. “The Drink Matcher is meant to be a springboard to help you discover the matches you prefer. The perfect pairing, of course, is between you and the wine you like,” says MacLean.

Of course there’s the ever-popular, if somewhat clichéd, rule to food and wine pairing that “if you like it, then it’s a good match.” But it’s as much fun to discover new wines as it is to taste different foods with them. Burkhard, who oversees a cellar of almost 300 bottles, is quick to point out that his restaurant changes the wines-by-the-glass list regularly. “Within one month the entire list is changed,” he says. “This way people can experience different types of wines or wine blends that they might have passed up if they had to buy a whole bottle.”

If I’ve learned anything from my brief foray into the ever-changing world of wine, it’s that the starting point is as simple as knowing what tastes and flavors I like, and understanding why I like them. From there it becomes one big tasting adventure. There are literally thousands of combinations of flavors and tastes in both food and wine. Some of those combinations are bound to be delicious, and others inevitably will be a disaster. The best thing to remember when it comes to wine and food pairing, though, is not to worry too much about it. Simply taste and enjoy the experience.

Donna Marie Desfor is a chef and owner of There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC, a culinary education–based business in Hampden Township, Cumberland County. Professionally trained in contemporary French Cuisine in South Africa’s number-one-rated Bosman’s restaurant, Desfor now hosts Food Wednesdays, witf.org’s online food section that provides recipes, chefs’ tips and tricks, and delicious information about food in Central PA.

Grilled Korean Pork Chops

This is an easy and tasty marinade that transforms into a delicious glaze with the heat of the grill. The heat from the chile in this dish can overpower the fruit in a wine, so take care not to overdo it. Try a fruity, full-bodied Grenache or a Grenache-Shiraz blend with this dish. Shao Xing wine is a rice-based Chinese cooking wine that is readily available in Asian markets or some ethnic sections of better grocery store chains.

2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon roasted red chile paste
2 Tablespoons Shao Xing wine (substitute sherry)
3 Tablespoons Mirin
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 green onions, white and light green parts only, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 Tablespoons finely minced ginger
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
6 center-cut, bone-in pork chops, about 1 inch thick (about 4-5 pounds total)
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, to garnish

Combine soy sauce and the next 9 ingredients (roasted red chile paste through black pepper) in a bowl. Divide pork chops between two heavy-duty storage bags (or place the chops in a large, shallow bowl) and add equal amounts of the soy sauce mixture to each. Seal the bags and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 8, turning the bags once or twice. Prepare the grill for direct, medium-high heat. Lightly brush the grate with vegetable oil. Remove the chops from the marinade and place on the grill. Discard the remaining marinade. Grill with the lid closed about 6 to 8 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the chops. Remove to a platter, tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds. Serves 6.

Clams in Garlic Miso Sauce With Red Pepper

This dish was inspired by some of the finest bistro food I have ever enjoyed. At Yasu Sushi Bistro in Phoenix, Arizona, I was treated to Manila clams in a rich, but slightly sweet, garlic miso sauce with dried Japanese red bell pepper. For a nice summer match, try a bright, unoaked chardonnay or a slightly sweet varietal like Viognier.

2 Tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 Tablespoons butter
6 to 8 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tablespoon finely minced ginger
1 small shallot, finely minced
½ cup sake (substitute Chinese cooking wine)
¼ cup miso (light)
½ teaspoon sugar
4 cups chicken stock (substitute high-quality canned chicken broth)
1 bag (50 count) littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
1 small Thai red chile, stemmed and seeded and very thinly sliced, for garnish

Place a Dutch-oven or medium-size stock pot over medium heat. Add grapeseed oil and butter. When butter is melted, add the garlic, ginger and shallot. Sauté for 1 to 2 minutes until soft and the garlic is just beginning to turn golden. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the sake and whisk in the miso and sugar to combine. Raise heat to high, add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce mixture by about half. Add the clams, cover and cook until clams open. Uncover and reduce heat to medium. Continue to reduce the liquid until you have a slightly thickened, rich-tasting broth. Add the chile for garnish. Ladle broth and clams into a bowl. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer or first course.