If you’re anything like me, you believe wine can and should be paired with any bizarre food. That’s what makes wine so diverse and inclusive. A wide array of culinary delights are synonymous with wines, like steak and a full-bodied Petite Sirah, Chilean sea bass with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, chocolate-covered strawberries with prosecco, pizza with any wine whatsoever, and the list goes on. But what about our guilty pleasures that never get discussed when talking with other wine enthusiasts and experts?
Today, we will discuss some bizarre food and wine pairings that may seem ‘out-of-the-box’ to non-wine lovers. We have all had those nights in college where ramen and boxed Cabernet Sauvignon were all we could afford. Or that afternoon after a long week of annoying bosses and chasing kids around, when a quart of chocolate chip cookie dough and a bottle of Chardonnay sounds like absolute bliss. So, let’s break down those barriers, shed our shame, and unapologetically talk about some of the weird things we have enjoyed with a bottle of vino and think to ourselves, “Wow, this is good, but I will be judged hard if anyone finds out.”
BBQ chips and rosé
If you think about the components involved, this shouldn’t seem odd at all. A nice cool, refreshing rosé on a warm summer day in a friend’s backyard during a bar-b-que, right? The crisp, fruity rosé was cutting through a dense and fatty pulled pork or brisket sandwich, the sweetness from the bbq sauce complimenting the taste of fresh berries in the wine. That’s an easy sell for most people. But for some reason, eating a bag of bar-b-que Lays with a glass of the summer classic, and people start giving sideways looks. Well, let them look. All of the complementary flavors that I mentioned about rosé and a pulled pork sandwich hold true for chips too, but there’s one aspect of the construction of the BBQ potato chip that, dare I say, makes it even better pairing for rosé. Salt! Yes, a potato chip, or even half a bag of potato chips, should not have the same fat content as a BBQ sandwich, but what they lack in that category, they more than makeup for in salt to surface area ratio.
Doritos® and Cabernet Sauvignon
Doritos are one of my guilty pleasures. Once a bag is opened, it magically disappears. If you want to have the discussion/argument about Cool Ranch vs. Original, that’s fine. Both are delicious and equally addicting. I love Cool Ranch, but my indoctrination into Doritos was the Original Nacho Cheese as a small child. Again, if you break down this ‘dish’ into its most basic parts, it’s essentially a corn tortilla chip that is dusted with a sharp cheddar cheese that has been touched by the gods. So, imagine you are having a dinner party, and a guest grabs a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, places it innocently on a cracker, takes a bite, followed by a sip of Cab Sav. Not a single guest would bat an eye. Well, the only real difference is that Doritos are much more delicious! Cab Sav is a boldly flavored red, with firm tannins, and slightly sweet enough to pair perfectly with a strong, soft, fatty cheese like cheddar. If you are in the Cool Ranch or Bust crowd, try a crisp Chenin Blanc. With high acidity and slight tartness, Chenin Blanc would go nicely with the sharper, slightly mouth-puckering flavor of Cool Ranch.
Cheez-It® and Sauvignon Blanc
Unlike most snacks from my childhood, I don’t remember the first time I had a Cheez-It cracker. Not because this cheesy, salty, savory delight didn’t have a significant impact on my youth, because they did. I don’t remember because I had them for the first time at such a young age. If I was acting up in the grocery store, or screaming in the backseat of the car, or just being the general terror that I was most of the time, my mother would give me a little Zip-Lock bag of Cheez-Its, and enjoy a solid 5 minutes of peace and quiet while she waited for the cold cuts at the deli counter. Cheez-Its do pack an incredible amount of cheesiness into each one of those little squares, so in their commercials, when they say “the cheesiest,” I nod in agreement. With such a strong, sharp cheddar flavor, you need a semi-dry, clean white wine to help balance some of the savory cheesiness. Sauvignon Blanc with high acidity and mild tannins is an excellent choice to cut through the flavors of a hand full of Cheez-Its. The tart berry and citrus notes from this refreshing white wine are a perfect cleanser so you can move freely throughout the baskets of different types of chips scattered atop your coffee table on movie night.
Puffy Cheetos® and Cabernet Sauvignon
Puffy vs. Crunchy Cheetos, Smooth vs. Crunchy Skippy, Cool Ranch vs. Nacho Cheese Doritos. These are arguments that have ended friendships and toppled governments. There will never be a common ground, a peaceful understanding, or agreement to disagree. These are arguments we are willing to go to the mattress for, and anyone who disagrees with our stance knows absolutely nothing about food or how to enjoy life truly and had better watch their back. I am a different breed of snacker, likely hated and confusing to people of either side of these fences. I like them all! It’s not beneath me to grab a Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese Dorito and toss them into my mouth simultaneously. It’s delicious! As far as puffy vs. crunchy, I think they both have their place and are so different; I find it crazy even to compare the two. “Crunchy” is dense in both construction of chip and cheesy flavor. In contrast, “puffy” is more subtle in flavor and is better for pairing with beer or wine given its ability to nearly dissolve on your tongue due to the air in the loose nooks and crannies, allowing for an easier path for your drink of choice to shine. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular red wine varietals around the globe and boasts a slightly earthy or wood aroma and hints of black cherry and warm baking spices on the palate. Full-bodied with complex tannins, this is a case where your snack food is complimenting your wine rather than the other way around. The mild, sharp cheesiness and umami from the Puffy Cheetos will almost jolt your taste buds back to attention after a long sip of the dark ruby wine. To me, a full spread of ALL of the aforementioned snacks on end tables and coffee tables alike during a cold winter afternoon, fire roaring, and football on tv while enjoying a glass of Washington Cabernet Sauvignon is just a slice of Americana.
Pepperoni Hot Pocket® & Cab Franc
Remember earlier when I said pizza goes with just about every wine? Well, I stand by that statement, but some do pair better than others. Whether you are a basic cheese type of person or someone who likes to add loads of toppings like pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms, a medium to full-bodied red is always going to pair perfectly with pizza. Taking it a step further, Pepperoni Hot Pockets were an after-school staple (Or Totino’s® Pizza Rolls — Combination flavor is the only way to fly here) in my house growing up. I vividly remember opening the plastic wrap, sliding the pocket into the NASA-engineered piece of cardboard with silver on the inside (not sure why they didn’t come already housed in that modern marvel of engineering), and popped that sucker into the microwave for two minutes. I’d stare with anticipation at the radiation-filled super cooker until the DING! Now I can’t speak for everyone’s microwave oven in the ’90s, but mine had a mind of its own and didn’t take orders from anybody. On Monday, that beautifully crisp and buttery Hot Pocket would scald my tongue with the first bite as ooey-gooey mozzarella and sauce poured out. It didn’t matter; it was worth it. But on Tuesday, using the exact instructions — time and power setting — the Hot Pocket was at best still semi-frozen in the middle. Any seasoned veteran ten-year-old knows all you have to do is cut it in half and stick it back in for about 20 seconds, and you’re good to go. The Pepperoni Hot Pocket is a snack that nearly every kid who grew up in the ’90s holds in high regard even today. I know if I’m having a rough week, tossing a box or two into my shopping cart means a brighter day. Now, the only difference is that I have traded in my drinks for a medium-bodied Cabernet Franc. Cab Franc has a complex set of flavors, including red berries and hints of mild to spicy peppers with a touch of minerality, perfect to compliment the pepperoni and slightly sweet sauce and cheese filling, not to mention that wonderful flaky, buttery outer crust. Now excuse me while I check my freezer.
Cinnamon Toast Crunch™ and Chardonnay
This may seem like the most bizarre food and wine pairings, but before you judge, hear me out. There are some days when wine for breakfast doesn’t seem like a bad idea. But who doesn’t love a bowl of cereal as a late evening snack if you’re just a little hungry before bed? I know I do. Why not also make that snack a dessert? Cinnamon Toast Crunch is a classic cereal, but I rarely indulge in that sugary cinnamon delight because, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly the healthiest breakfast option. I can justify it in place of a bowl of ice cream, though! California Chardonnay pairs beautifully here due to low acidity that won’t overpower the creaminess of the milk; in fact, the smooth texture of an oaked chardonnay will compliment it. Chardonnay is very mildly sweet, which is fine because the Cinnamon Toast Crunch is going to do the heavy lifting in that department. The wine’s tart apple and pineapple notes will also be a lovely complement to that burst of cinnamon that comes with every bite!
Strawberry Pop-Tart® & California Chardonnay
You know those Saturday mornings where you want to go to brunch but don’t feel like getting out of your pajamas? This what some may call bizarre food and wine pairing and the next are perfect for that. For me, Pop-Tarts are a great throwback to childhood, and some days I like to “brunch” at home with my Pop-Tarts and a little wine. The Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts are my go-to and go well with a California Chardonnay that’s been oak-aged. The Strawberry jam inside brings the fruit-forward aspect that the buttery flavor of the Chardonnay balances out.
Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tart® & California Pinot Noir
My next favorite flavor of Pop-Tart is the Brown Sugar & Cinnamon. I feel like 90% of Pop-Tart eaters choose between these 2 flavors, and I’m not knocking it. These take me back to my childhood days when I would go to a friend’s house in the morning before school, and her mom would toast us the Brown Sugar Pop-Tarts and then spread a little butter into them. Wow, it was sinful. So now, if I treat myself to Pop-Tarts, I have to have them the same way. With the California Pinot Noir, this pairing is almost the opposite of the Strawberry & Chardonnay pairing. The Brown Sugar Cinnamon brings the pastry and baking spice flavor that pairs so well with the dark berry flavor from the Pinot Noir. My recommendation is to do a Pop-Tart & wine tasting the next Saturday or Sunday you’re home. Invite a friend and try some of the other flavors too!
Lunch and dinner
Fried Chicken and sparkling wine
Growing up in the South, fried chicken isn’t just food we all Southerners identify with and agree upon. Fried chicken is religion, government, and high school football rolled up into one all-encompassing culture-defining zeitgeist. Like most dishes that hold this type of cultural importance, recipes and styles vary from state to state, county to county, and town to town. No, fried chicken is a serious business in the South and is treated with the care and respect that all regional cuisines and secret family recipes should be. Fried chicken in my grandmother’s kitchen was buttermilk, flour, a few secret spices, and the most critical ingredient in grandma’s kitchen, plenty of love and laughter. It was juicy and tender, slightly salty, with plenty of crunch from the savory outer layer. As far as pairing wine with this type of salty, savory, heavy, delectable meal, this one is a no-brainer. This may seem like a bizarre food and wine pairing but bear with me. Sparkling white wine is the only way to go because it won’t mess with the already perfect balance of rich, robust flavors, it won’t make you feel any fuller than you already are, and most importantly, it will cool you off a bit. During the serious business of eating hot fried chicken and other southern staples, you need something refreshing and palate-cleansing to enjoy each dish’s intricacies. Sparkling white blends from northern California and Oregon possess crisp, citrusy tasting notes, medium-high acidity, and a small bubble structure that’s perfect for cutting through rich dishes. They’re incredibly refreshing, especially on warm summer days when fried chicken cookouts are in their peak season!
Hot Wings and Riesling
Wings are one of my favorite foods. Period Stop. Not one of my favorite game-day snacks, not one of my favorite bar foods, not one of my favorite dishes from the grill. No, I like wings in various ways and styles of preparation. Wings have a great combination of fatty dark meat, making them difficult to overcook. They have an excellent meat-to-bone ratio, making the juice worth the squeeze, and a near-perfect surface area to meat ratio allowing for maximum flavor from your dry rub or spicy sauce to that juicy, delicious meat. When you are in tune with and have an intimate relationship with wings like myself, ‘Hot Wings’ is still a pretty broad term. They could be a spicy, vinegary, buttery Buffalo wing, a Cajun dry-rubbed wing, or a breaded crunchy fried Korean BBQ wing. The possibilities are endless, but we will focus on the famous Buffalo wing for the sake of time. Making Buffalo sauce is incredibly delicious and simple to make at home. I prefer making my own Buffalo sauce and wings because I have total control over spiciness, which can change based on how much spice my guests and I are in the mood for, and I can also control the amount of sauce on the wings. If I’m preparing them for a game day gathering, swimming in a sauce is the way to go. If I’m making them for an afternoon snack or before dinner treat, I may go with less sauce to reduce the mess. Whatever your preference for wings, just like wine, as long as you enjoy them, that’s all that matters. This simple sauce can include as few as two ingredients (butter and hot sauce) and get as complicated as you’d like by adding Worcestershire, garlic (or garlic powder), cayenne pepper for added heat, white wine vinegar, etc. However you decide to prepare your sauce, the overriding flavors will be fatty chicken and butter, spiciness, and slight acidity from the hot sauce. My favorite wine to pair with wings is Riesling due to its high acidity to cut through the sauce’s spiciness and fattiness of the chicken and sauce, as well as its complementary citrus notes. Riesling is also a food pairing chameleon because it can be sweet and pair nicely with deserts or sweeter bar-b-que dishes, and it can also be dry like many Rieslings found in Washington State. This dry variety goes so well with Buffalo wings because not only does the acidity helped with the spiciness and richness of the dish, but a dry, crisp, fruit-forward wine can act as a palate cleanser to help refresh your tongue and prepare it for the next bite. Or help your taste buds prepare for a different dish altogether.
Tikka Masala and Riesling
Tikka masala is a dish loaded with strong fragrant spices from the Middle East and South Asia and a decadent cream sauce. The addition of marinated and seared chicken and warm butter Naan makes tikka masala a hearty comfort food worthy of any home’s Sunday dinner table. Tikka masala is an Indian dish that is eaten all over the world, and with good reason. It has an incredible balance of complementary flavors of tart yogurt, slightly acidic tomato paste and puree, and a melding of spices worldwide. The complexity of flavors from this dish is best paired with a crisp, clean, almost cleansing white wine such as Riesling. Yes, most people often think of Riesling as a viscous sweet wine from Germany or Austria, and they’re correct; those are some of the best white wines in the world. However, Riesling often has a bit of an identity crisis because many Riesling’s produced in Oregon and Washington are dry, crisp, acidic wines similar to Sauvignon Blanc or a Rhône Valley style white blend. With flavors of lemon zest, peach, pineapple, and a slight minerality, this style of Riesling is perfect to pair with a spicy, creamy sauce to help offset the spicy richness of tikka masala.
Gyros and Grenache
Greece may very well be the crown jewel of the Mediterranean and its delicious and diverse cuisine. Greece is associated with a wide variety of dishes, none more popular than the Gyro. Traditionally, Gyros are made from pork or chicken roasted on a vertical spit. It’s now common to also see lamb and beef masquerading as a traditional Gyro. I prefer lamb, so I guess I’m not that traditional. A Gyro is an incredible mastery of flavors, textures, and temperatures. First, there is the upfront hot salty, fatty, savory, slightly spicy … lamb, yes lamb …, then crunchy cool lettuce, tomato, and red onion. Then there is the cold, creamy tzatziki with citrus, cucumber, and fresh dill, and finally, the warm, soft pita that holds the masterpiece together. This complex street food requires an equally modest and complex wine to bring out all of its mouth-watering flavors. Grenache has a full-body and medium acidity with plum, cooked berries, and earthy leather that will accentuate the salty, savory lamb and make the freshness of the vegetables and tangy tzatziki shine.