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Wines to Pair with Chicken

What to Pair with Your Favorite Chicken Dishes

by Randal Caparoso

Learn how to pair wine with your favorite chicken dishes

My jobs have always taken me to the skies, and I think that people like me who live their life out of a suitcase usually try to take a little bit of home everywhere they go. I’ve known frequent flyers who pack their favorite pillow, who eschew the hotel freebies in favor of their own soaps and bath oils. Deluxe hotels will pamper them further by having their favorite wines, scented candles or even color schemes waiting for them when they arrive — anything to make them feel less like a stranger. As for myself, I eat chicken … everywhere I go. I can’t help it; my mother said I was born an orally fixated child. Whether it’s a chicken sandwich for lunch, roasted chicken for dinner, or lots of Colonel or Boston’s in between, I feel pretty much "at home" if I've found some decent chicken.

But this doesn't necessarily make me the world's greatest expert on chicken. Nevertheless, there are two things I do know:

Ordering chicken in every restaurant gives you a pretty good idea of how good or bad, and detail-oriented a restaurant's chef is.

Chicken loves wine, and picking a good one is not one of life’s most difficult tasks. The great thing about chicken is that there are 1,001 ways to cook it — and undoubtedly a 1,001 wines to go with it.
And it must be eaten with wine. No one really says, "This is the perfect tea for Chinese beggar’s chicken” or that "the classic drink for Creole fried chicken is a Big Gulp." But they do say that Bourgogne (a Pinot Noir from France) is the perfect match for coq au vin (chicken cooked in red wine) and that Chianti Classico (the red wine of Tuscany) is a natural with cacciatore (chicken braised with tomatoes and mushrooms). A good wine, in other words, can elevate the most pedestrian of chickens to aesthetic levels. That's why they call it "fine wine."

So here’s some wine for thought with some of the more familiar variations of chicken you may find, at home or faraway.


Chicken simmered in red wine, bacon, pearl onions, mushrooms and garlic cloves is wonderful with red Pinot Noir from France, California, Oregon, or any place you can find soft, silky examples of this naturally earthy-spicy red wine. But for coq au "vin blanc" (substituting white wine for red), I’ve found that the better match is a dry white wine with a modicum of stony earthiness, without the weighty fruitiness that is more typical of California’s popular Chardonnays, without the lemony sharp edge of typical Sauvignon (or Fumé) Blancs and without the perfumey fruitiness of Riesling or Moscato.

But not to worry; these kinds of whites are not rare, especially in France. The round, smoky nuanced whites of Burgundy’s Macon and Cote de Beaune regions, and the stony dry, smooth bottlings of Pinot Blanc and Pinot d’Alsace in Alsace — any of these will do.

In California, not all Chardonnays are distractingly fruity. In the cooler climates like Santa Barbara, there are some crisp styles with mineral qualities being produced (especially by Au Bon Climat), and you’ll find similar, moderately scaled Chardonnays in Oregon (by Argyle, Eola Hills and King Estate) as well as in Washington (you won’t have to look far for wines by Chateau Ste. Michelle).

But who says the world of coq au vin blanc turns around Chardonnay? The Pinot Blancs of California (Murphy-Goode’s and Chalone’s) as well as Oregon (WillaKenzie’s and Ken Wright’s) fulfill the same culinary need when it calls for a white wine that’s not too heavy, not too light, not too tart, and not too soft or fruity. Just walk into a store (or restaurant) and say “Pinot Blanc.”


The familial Italian chicken is cooked either with tomatoes, herbs and white wine, or braised with black olives and anchovy. Sometimes all of it. Tuscany’s Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, which are made from the red Sangiovese grape, have the natural acidity and cherry tomato-like fruitiness to strike the perfect balance with this style of chicken.

Other excellent and often cheaper Sangiovese-based red wines from Italy include Carmignano, Sangiovese di Romagna and Rosso di Montalcino. But from across the ocean, some of the new California grown Sangioveses — like those of Luna, Robert Pepi, Ferrari-Carano, Seghesio and Robert Mondavi’s La Famiglia label — have more than enough zip and fruitiness to fit the bill.

Barring that, there are other red wine grapes — notably Barbera and Dolcetto — cultivated in both Italy and California (and bottled by the names of the grape in both places) that offer soft, zesty edged fruit qualities similar to Sangiovese, making as effortless a match with cacciatore chicken.


The late food writer and author Roy Andries de Groot once proclaimed his recipe for Hungarian style of chicken — browned with goose fat, then braised with onions, garlic and, a sauce pigmented by the mildly spiced paprika chile before thickened with sour cream — as one of the most glorious dishes in the world, and I can’t say I disagree. I’ve tested it, time and time again.

For paprika-laced chicken, de Groot’s classic choice was always a lovingly cellared, old French Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon — soft, yet rich enough to absorb the avalanche of sweet and spicy flavors in paprika-style chicken. The problem however, is that De Groot’s idea of “cellaring” was a vintage at least 20 or 25 years old.

So in lieu of that, I recommend a soft, lushly fruited, California grown red wine made from the Merlot grape (my favorites include Voss, Swanson, de Lorimier and Echelon) or one of California’s elegant yet dense, juicy “Bordeaux”-style blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (some examples include de Lorimier’s Mosaic, Justin’s Justification, the Murrieta’s Well, and the powerfully rich and composed Quintessa of Napa Valley).

Luscious Merlots = luscious chicken paprikas. The simplicity of this formula is matched only by the beauty of its predictability.


The familiar Chinese-style dishes — in sweet and sour lemon sauces, or steamed with ginger and garlic — call for more exotically perfumed white wines that combine both acidity and traces of residual sugar. But this does not mean that the best choice is Gewürztraminer, which is a lychee-scented white wine that has a tendency towards low acidity and slightly bitter qualities (as commonly found in the Gewürztraminers of France’s Alsace, and many of the dryer styles of California). Heavy, bitter styles of Gewürztraminer have a tendency to taste unbearably harsh with sweet and sour dishes and dishes that are sweeter and more sour than necessary.

The best white wine for strongly flavored Chinese styles of chicken is Riesling, which is lush enough to merge seamlessly with gingery spices and gently balanced enough to echo sweet and sour notes. The lightest yet most intensely scented and refined Rieslings in the world come from Germany, particularly the Kabinett quality styles from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau and Pfalz regions. In Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle has been turning out freshly balanced, lusciously fruited Rieslings since the 70s; in the Southern Hemisphere, the Rieslings by Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia and Villa Maria in New Zealand are both wonderful, tropical-scented wines with hints of sweetness and balanced by enough zesty acidity to harmonize with sweet/spicy/gingery Asian-style chickens.

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In North America, the Cajun-Creole style of casserole chicken may very well reign supreme. Versions such as Paul Prudhomme's — perfectly thickened by roux, the "holy trinity" of onions, bell peppers and celery, and a dozen or so other spices and seasonings — are both complex and mercilessly intense. For something so good, the only thing to drink with it is a great wine!

Étouffée likes wines equal to it in depth, strength and layers of spice. This would mean a good red wine, but not one with a dry, hard taste that would deaden the palate. The wine that best fits this description is California’s Zinfandel, especially the velvety, jam-scented Zinfandels produced in Sonoma by the likes of Quivira, De Loach, Ravenswood, Ferrari-Carano, Ridge, or Dry Creek Vineyards.

Of those from Napa Valley, Zinfandel connoisseurs swear by Robert Biale and Turley Wine Cellars, although a lower range Blockheadia Ringnosii is just as bright and juicy. In other parts of the state, producers like Cosentino and Michael-David Vineyards (the latter with labels like "7 Deadly Sins" and "Earthquake") make outstanding all-American styles — big and unabashedly fruity — for this all-American style of chicken.


Any soft, lush, garden variety California or Australian Chardonnay


If in a sticky/spicy red marinade, a dry Rosé (like French Tavel or Grenache Rosé from California); if in an Asian style soy/ginger marinade, an off-dry German Riesling (Kabinett or "Half Dry”)

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Italian Pinot Grigio or Oregon Pinot Gris (especially if served with a salsa or simple squeeze of lemon)


Medium-sweet German Riesling ("Spätlese") or Italian Moscato d'Asti

© Randal Caparoso

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(Updated: 09/07/12 DL)

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