Just imagine the mouth-coating richness of a fatty Wagyu steak being cut by the grippy tannins of a powerful Barolo. It sets the stage for a contrasted dance between savory red meat and elegant cherries, coupled with dried roses.
Similarly, picture a contrast between the brambly berry flavors of a Dry Creek Zinfandel and the aggressive gaminess of venison. Or perhaps the intensity of a strawberry-laden Willamette Pinot Noir against the acrid smokiness of cedar-planked salmon.
Sometimes the dance is more compliment than contrast, like the harmony of fruit flavors between duck a l’orange and Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Or even the simple brininess of oysters and the chalky minerality of Chablis.
In the best cases, the relationship between wine and food is a happy mix of both. But the stage doesn’t always have to be a ballroom, and the dance doesn’t always have to be a waltz - or in our case, the pairings not as fancy-shmancy.
Sometimes the venue is little less classy...saaaay a Taco Bell, KFC, or maybe an In-N-Out (for those of you readers lucky enough to have one around). Rest assured, the pairings can be just as stellar, and that date night you have planned can still go off without a hitch, at least in the department of gastronomy. It is in this article that I hope to arm you with the knowledge I believe can make everyday meals outstanding.
There’s enough information to flood pages, but I’ll keep it simple with this metaphor. Picture two salsa partners on the dance floor or perhaps two boxing opponents in a ring. Think of a scenario where these partners have similar builds, and another in which they have dramatically different ones. It’s safe to assume that the first scenario would yield a harmonious, thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing, coordinated interplay while the second results in an undesired black eye. That’s what pairing wine & food is like. The better the match, the better the interaction.
Another thing to consider is a wine’s structure (I’ll spare you the metaphor for this one). Fat in any dish is quite an amazing thing. However, it takes up lots of space on our palates, and blocks the way for other things that SHOULD be making an appearance - most notably flavors. Luckily, wine’s answer to this is acidity & tannin, as both precipitate fat, thus clearing the path for all the other cool stuff to make their way to our taste buds (and for all the beer lovers out there, carbonation acts similarly).
Using this as context, let’s dive into the delectable, guilt-ridden world of fast food and search for some stellar wine pairings. For the sake of practicality, I will discuss wines that you can find at your local grocery, rather than having to go to a specialty wine store (although if you have one within proximity, then by all means go).
With the biggest, heaviest reds
Usually the stuff that first comes to our minds. Cabs, Zins, Malbecs, Syrahs, Blends, and the like. They have the most flavor, the most body, the most tannin, and the most of a whole lot more. But just because they’re the most obvious doesn’t mean they should always be first choice.
Remember that metaphor from earlier? Keep in mind that these reds represent the far end of the spectrum – the Schwarzeneggers of wine selections. More specifically, the tannins in these wines are extremely abundant, and their weights are all at the top of the (fast) food chain. To keep the interaction balanced & engaging, we must make sure we partner with take-out that’s just as substantial.
The most obvious partners to these are heavy duty hamburgers. However, since were discussing the biggest reds available, think BIG like Carl’s Jr (Hardees) Six Dollar 1/3lb Burgers, the Five Guys Double Grilled Cheeseburger, and certainly In-N-Out’s Double-Doubles and 4x4s. Other drive-thru contenders, again, remembering to think big, would be chili cheese fries, Philly cheesesteaks, & fattier iterations of Mexican dishes like barbacoa or beef burritos with gratuitous cheese.
In any of these cases, do be careful with anything spicy (jalapenos, red pepper flakes, etc) as tannins in wine, as well as alcohol, tend to exacerbate them for the worse. In the realm of barbeque sauce-slathered red meats, Syrahs (especially Australian Shiraz) & Zinfandels get a notable mention as they have inherent peppery/savory flavors that compliment meat, and fruit intensities that match the sweetness of the sauce.
Regardless of which guilty pleasure you may choose, keep in mind that the interaction at play remains the same – your palate will be covered in fats from cheese, fats from meat, fats from rich sauces, you get the idea. When your tongue is coated in so much richness that you can no longer taste the nuances of other flavors, it’s actually those same rough, burly tannins (culprits of the bitterness we so vehemently avoid) that cleanse the palate and restore order to your taste buds - the best partners will bleed grease through the wrapper, clog the arteries, and most importantly give the wine’s structure something more substantial to spar with (although it wouldn’t hurt to schedule that checkup with your cardiologist).
With reds that aren’t as big
Think Grenache, Gamays, Pinot Noirs, Sangioveses, and more. When going lighter we naturally become more flexible with our pairings as our drinks are less demanding & aggressive (in the best cases, with no sacrifice to flavor). We no longer need look for entrees that coat our palates in fats & protein, as these reds will be less substantial. Lighter items like deli sandwiches and protein + rice (or other grain) plates can find their way back to our passenger seats.
First, Pinot Noir can indeed work with fast foods but a good number (often domestically made) are oaky, bearing notes of vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, and more. While that does sound fantastic, flavors reminiscent of Grandma’s kitchen aren’t the most flexible for pairing. Sweet spices can tend to clash with the saltier, more savory tones of cured meat, or the lively flavors of condiments like ketchup or mustard, or the raw flavors of vegetables, and even peppery spices like cayenne and paprika. However, this same acrid character makes a perfect partner to the deeply charred flavors from grilling, searing, roasting, and so on. Thus, if your meal is just roasted chicken or pork, without excessive salt, spice, or vegetal tones Pinot works great, so long as there aren’t any of the aforementioned flavors to oppose.
If you’re a devout Pinot follower, than opt for versions that don’t stress the usage of oak, and are therefore more flexible (“excuse me, I’m looking for a Pinot that isn’t oaky”). A bit more obscure, but a fantastic alternative, is to reach for a bottle of French Beaujolais, which is based from the Gamay varietal. This red has a structure and berry-tinged character like Pinot Noir, but is unencumbered by a copious amount of oak flavorings.
With the primary flavors being red berry fruits, Beaujolais makes a great contrast to cured meats such as ham, roast beef, and pastrami, as well as a match for livelier sauces like mustards, ketchups, and spicy mayos. The applications of Beaujolais extend far beyond conventional sandwiches, as its vivacious fruit tones serve as a great match to strongly flavored and/or spicy foods like Cajun and Middle Eastern – just think of how notes of fresh strawberry & cherry would wonderfully contrast against a savory mouthful gyros from Halal Guys.
Another French alternative for pairing would be a bottle of Cotes Du Rhone (based from Grenache) which is delivers loads of baked/dried red fruit flavors alongside secondary notes of herbs and spice, and a fuller body when compared to the former reds. Just like Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone does well when matched with menu items that put the savory flavors of meat at the forefront, such as those deeply charred chicken & steak bowls from Chipotle or mixed piece meals from El Pollo Loco. Whether it’s Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone, you have wines that are not very tannic and have livelier red fruit flavors.
With this in mind, Mexican dishes that dabble with red pepper flakes, cayenne, chilis, and the like become outstanding partners to either wine as their piquancy will not be offset by an excessively tannic structure (the structure of wines from the former category would make your palate feel like a flamethrower). I will also quickly note that Indian cuisines work with these reds by virtue of the same principle. From another part of the world, Italian Sangiovese, often in the form of a bottle of Tuscan “Chianti”, works great with tomato themed dishes, whose inherent flavors are often hard to pair with. Sangiovese’s own flavors of tart cherry and tomato make it a natural partner to anything that dabbles in marinara sauces – think of your favorite pizza place, or perhaps Subway’s flagship Meatball Marinara.
Regardless of the choices in wine or food, lets remember to take the bird’s eye view and repeat our mantra of matching the overall weights & characters of both participants. After conceptually scaling both partners mentioned above, can we see how they make fine dance partners?
With Whites & Rose
Although not often our first thought to accompany fast food, the opportunity for a home-run pairing very much does exist in the realm of whites, and in many more ways than you think. For a good number of these wines, the dynamic is simple – the acidity in whites contrasts with the lighter flavors of white meats & seafood, emphasizing their simplistic character. As MS Evan Goldstein put it in his fantastic book “Perfect Pairings”, the acid in these wines act as “gastronomic highlighter”.
Obvious examples of this are Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Albarino, and lighter iterations of Pinot Gris/Grigio, which prominently feature a lively acidity as well as vibrant fruit tones. When pairing with lighter whites, Tex-Mex-themed joints like Baja Fresh, Rubio's, Wahoo's, and El Pollo Loco are perfect as much of their menu revolves around simply prepared poultry and/or seafood, with minimal intervention from spices or sauce. Again, simple with simple right? However, be advised that when entrees include grilled vegetables or tossed greens, Sauv Blanc usually takes the edge as it has an intrinsic vegetal/herbaceous character that is complimentary. For those of you making New Year’s resolutions to be healthier, yes you should certainly pair Sauv Blanc with your salads.
Beyond said varietals, there are a few that have a modest amount of sweetness to them – what is known as “off-dry”. While sugar isn’t always desired in our whites, and a lot of us prefer dry (supposedly), sugar does have its niche in the world of pairing – a prime example being German Riesling (look for “kabinett” or ‘spatlese” on the label when available). Its sugar nullifies heat, thus calming the palate and allowing us to enjoy the other wonderful flavors of a dish without breaking a sweat. Ethnic items that emphasize exotic flavors, like Tikka Masala and Chicken Curry, work great with Riesling as it has plenty of its own perfumed aromas to match the flavor intensity, as well as ample sugar to tame the heat.
Another example of this dynamic would be a partnership with Szechuan entrees like Kung Pao Chicken or Mapo Tofu – for those of you who don’t have a local authentic Szechuan joint nearby, much of Panda Express’s menu offers items that dabble in both spice & sugar to dance perfectly with Riesling. Another fast food/wine niche that you might not have thought of (unless you’re German) would be pairing Riesling with hot dogs as the interaction becomes a playful contrast of salty against sweet.
The ubiquitous Chardonnay, contrary to its popularity, is actually not as flexible as the other whites mentioned – at least not the oaky, butter-laden iterations from California that we all know and love. Just as in the case of Pinot Noir from earlier, Chard’s hedonistic character of oak driven spices cause it to clash with the saltier and/or vegetal tones often found in drive-thrus (although it should be noted that the case is quite the opposite when discussing dishes in the arena of fine dining). When Chardonnay in unoaked however, it can be treated just like drier whites mentioned before; with simple recipes that put protein at the forefront.
Lastly we have Rose to consider. While it is indeed lighter, it's sort of an “in between” style – from its assertiveness & intensity of flavors, to its fullness in texture, and even having a small presence of tannin. The style is characteristically a vino middle ground, never fully committing to either side, and therefore yielding implications in pairing that are synonymously “in between”.
Any meal that hearkens to one color of wine, but flirts with another makes a perfect candidate - lighter variations of the items in the earlier sections work swimmingly such as single patty cheeseburgers, sandwiches with chicken or charcuterie, and most ethnic cuisines when the proteins are leaner cuts (like white meat & seafood). Even BBQ sauce items match well against Rose’s sweeter impressions of fruit, again so long as the proteins aren’t big slabs of red meat.
More contemporarily, many of the vegetarian themed fast-casual spots that have rightly gained much popularity (like Veggie Grill & Native Foods) are also very much “in between” as they are based on vegetables, grains, and alternative proteins, but aslo have a ramped-up weight & flavor profile, due to their often generous, additions of sauce & seasonings.
As we exit the drive-thru
As a parting note, the knowledge presented above represents a foundational approach to pairing food and wine - much of these theories are long honored and time tested. However, the world of wine (and food of course) is dizziyingly immense. When attempting to pair our meals & beverages remember that, like a game of chess, there are many moving pieces, and our logical minds may often oversee exactly how intertwined even one piece may be in relation to the rest of the board, leading to minor, and even monumental blunders (last metaphor, I promise!).
What I’m trying to say is that sometimes the pairing may not always work out, despite our best calculations. Inevitably our food will be much fattier than we anticipated, or the wine not structured enough, or the flavors just won’t play well together. Regardless of the hiccup, asking why a pairing failed to work teaches us just as much (if not more) than why something did – with the often-crippling amount of choice available, this approach will serve you well (it certainly has for me).
Lastly, remember wine should always be, above all else, the fun part of our day, and we mustn’t let the ever-expanding abundance of information impede our enjoyment - or inebriation. Much like tone of this article, keep in mind to approach the subject of vino - and gastronomy for that matter - with a healthy degree of merriment.
Don't forget to check out Drive Through Napa, a modern primer on Napa Valley. The quickest and coolest way to learn about Napa Valley. Bonus content from 16 of Napa's top wineries + industry's first Price to Value charts powered by Vinvo.