I'd love to live like I sprouted from the pages of Real Simple magazine, but sometimes ordering in and eating something that requires zero thought while watching reruns of "Archer" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is just the best. Enough has been written about what to drink with lemongrass foam-topped heritage chicken terrine, so here are some food and wine pairing basics using food you might actually eat this week.
“What grows together, goes together,” is a cliché for a reason, and pizza and Italian wine is one of those reasons.
There are approximately 4,592 grape varietals grown in Italy (not really, it just feels like it sometimes), but let's focus on two that go with pizza especially well, and are relatively easy to find. They work because wine should be more tart than what you're eating (and tomato sauce is tangy), and Italian reds tend to be higher in acidity than, say, Cabernet from California.
Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is the subject of a lot of gushing and point-awarding in the wine press, and it can be fantastic, but it is also really expensive. Instead, look for Rosso di Montalcino on labels. Wines labeled Toscana Rosso can also be great values. They are often, but not always, Sangiovese-based as well. Good Sangiovese should make your mouth water and taste vaguely of sour cherries.
Barbera, the "other red grape" of Italy's Piedmont region, is another good option. Usually you'll see Barbera d'Asti on the label, or Barbera d'Alba. Barolo and Barbaresco are the famous wines of this region, but most of the fancy Barolo producers have to keep some cash flow going, so they bottle much less expensive Barberas for people to drink, supposedly, while they're waiting for their nutbar-expensive Barolo to mature in their custom-made cellars. Ha! My cellar is part of a closet and the bottom shelf of my refrigerator that's not taken up by the Brita filter and Coke Zero. Anyway, Barbera has about the same level of oomph and teeth-staining ability as Merlot, but it's tangier.
Dealing with spicy food is relatively similar (generally speaking -- you can get much more nuanced about this stuff if you want to and I have the bookshelves to prove it!) whether you're talking about Mexican, Asian or Buffalo chicken wings. That's because capsaicin, the compound that makes chiles feel spicy, irritates your mouth and tends to take over the party pretty quickly. Dumping a wine high in alcohol on top of that is not a great idea. The most foolproof pairing with spicy food is a wine that's relatively low in alcohol with a hint of sweetness.
The easiest way to find a wine like this that won't remind you of white Zin from a box is to look for a bottle of one of Germany's greatest exports, the white grape Riesling, labeled "Kabinett." "Halbtrocken" or "feinherb" are other good bits of label lingo to keep an eye out for. Wines made in these styles aren't going to taste sticky-sweet, they'll be more like that great sweet/tart balance you get in homemade lemonade. Riesling is also one of those grapes where you should get over worrying about looking pretentious and stick your nose in the glass once in awhile, because it smells amazing, like honeysuckle, peaches and almond paste.
There are also some fantastic Rieslings made in Washington and New York states -- Dr. Loosen, a famous German producer, has a winery in Washington. European investment: a sure sign we're on to something.
Fried Chicken and Other Crispy Delights
Sparkling wine is delicious with anything fatty and crunchy, especially potato chips and fried chicken. It has more in common with soda, a beverage we tend to associate with junk food, than just bubbles. Soda's sweetness is usually balanced by a big slug of citric acid, and sparkling wine tends to be very tart as well.
So, what better way to refresh your delicate palate after something crunchy and rich like buttered popcorn, or a fried, crunchy snack, than something fizzy, tart AND boozy?
If you like fruitier flavors in your fizz, look for Italy's Prosecco. Some producers are better than others, but they're basically all pretty fun to drink. If you like something really crisp, look for Cava, Spain's answer to Champagne. Even the ubiquitous Freixenet in the black bottle is not half bad, despite the cringe-worthy commercials.
If you want to feel fancy, but don't want to spend quite what you would for Champagne, look for bubbles labeled Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Bourgogne or Cremant d'Alsace. These are wines made in the same basic method as Champagne, but in French wine regions that haven't aggressively and litigiously maintained their status as purveyors of the best of the bestest luxury bubbly for more than 100 years. They tend not to be owned by giant, scary luxury goods conglomerates, too, so that's a bonus.
Burgers: No Drive-Thru Shaming Here!
A juicy burger is a great time to pull out a big, va-va-voom red. I'm weird and describe wines like they are people, and wines like Australian Shiraz, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, or California Zinfandel are like the Jessica Rabbits of wine, and won't be drowned out by red meat covered in special sauce. I especially like the combination of a big, rich Shiraz with blue cheese or really sharp cheddar on a burger, as sort of a nod to the classic Port and Stilton combo.
For a simpler burger, maybe one that's more McDonald's than Five Guys, try an inexpensive Bordeaux, which are all varying combinations of five different red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being the most famous. You don't have to start reading reviews written by pretentious old dudes who overuse words like "hedonistic" and "scintillating" to buy Bordeaux. It's a big, diverse region, and churns out lots of inexpensive, ready-to-pop-now wine despite the fact that we tend to only hear about the famous ones that get counterfeited and auctioned off in Hong Kong.
And remember: Everything tastes better on a plate, even orange grease-slicked pizza. Cheers!
Do you have burning wine and/or food questions? Do you have a favorite food and beverage combination that everyone else thinks is weird? Let me know!