Why this irreverent combo is the most life-changing wine and food match ever.
You know that friend who shows up dressed to the nines for the most casual get-together and isn’t remotely concerned about what anyone thinks? That’s the philosophy behind sipping a chilled flute (or red Solo cup, as the case may be) with a juicy, greasy drumstick. Fizz with picnic fare? Don’t care. Grab a bucket, pop the cork and have your mind blown.
So just what makes this pairing so amazing? Sparkling wine is a home run for fried chicken because of its abundance of carbon dioxide, says AJ Johnson, general manager and beverage director at Macon Bistro & Larder in Washington, DC, which hosts a fried chicken and Champagne dinner every Monday night with battered pieces, sides including collard greens, mac and cheese and grits, and five-ounce pours of Champagne for $12. “It refreshes the palate by carrying away grease from the tongue and cheeks, mitigates salt instead of exacerbating it, [and] dries the palate, making it ready for either another bite of food or another sip of bubbles.” The idea might not come across as particularly elegant, but it’s just as synergistic as Muscadet and oysters or Sauternes and foie gras.
Fried chicken and Champagne pairing at Macon Bistro & Larder
Of course, it’s not just the traditional, expensive stuff from that demarcated region in France that pairs well with breaded poultry. Johnson also looks to Crémant, a traditional method sparkling wine made in other regions of the country including Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. She especially likes the way the latter (generally made with Chenin Blanc grapes like the region’s still white wines) touts a low amount of residual sugar, which translates to refreshing, palate-scrubbing bubbles. Drier Spanish Cavas can also work. “You really want to make sure that you get a balanced bubbly with creamy texture and lean acidity to ensure a long, dry finish,” she notes. Her least favorite? Bottles from California – which tend to be riper with less balanced acidity – and Prosecco, which can be one-noted and sit on the palate.
“It’s that combination of classy and low brow, but also the classic contrasting pair of rich and fatty with bright and crisp,” notes Daniel Toral, beverage director of 50 Eggs, Inc., who adds that the type of breading or batter used on chicken plays a big part. At the company’s Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, which has locations in Miami and Las Vegas, it’s dredged in flour, which makes it light and crisp and perfect with higher acid Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It also sings with lightly sparkling ancestral-style Pet-Nat or Col Fondo Prosecco (a recent find for Toral), both of which undergo secondary fermentation naturally in the bottle. Heavier breading like egg wash and breadcrumbs call for the dried fruit and bread yeast notes, and smaller, tighter bubbles found in fuller-bodied Champagnes like Blanc de Noirs, as well as in Franciacorta, a traditional method style which hails from Italy’s Lombardy region. And rich buttermilk batter is offset by the lighter feel of a Crémant d’Alsace.
At Central Michel Richard, a French bistro in Washington, DC, chefs apply a layer of chicken mousse seasoned with cayenne and curry to the skin before a sourdough breading; brut Champagne’s assertive acidity cuts through the richness of that creamy mousse. “The crisp and toasted texture of the breading for fried chicken, combined with toasted and bready flavors in Champagne, create a perfect harmony for pairing,” says wine and beverage director Brian Zipin.
The fried chicken at the Nashville location of Husk, a regionally-inspired restaurant housed in a historic mansion, has a bit of spice to it, so sommelier Nicolette Anctil likes to recommend bubbly that’s a tad sweet to balance that heat, like fizzy Brachetto d’Acqui, an aperitif-style sparkler made in Italy’s Piedmont region. For tangy buttermilk-based batters, she likes oxidized styles of sparkling wine, like Crémant du Jura from southwest France, which comes across as nutty, rich, full and yeasty. “Fried, savory, salty and crunchy; what better [beverage] than the bubbly, mineral, refreshing taste of something sparkling balanced with crispy fried chicken,” Anctil declares. “It just makes sense.” Indeed.
Crémant du Jura at Husk in Nashville
Rotating fried chicken and Champagne dinners are held several times a year at Coquette, a New American restaurant in New Orleans. Generally served family-style, they start with biscuits with honey butter and pimento cheese, followed by cold seasonal starters like tomato spring onion salad, broccoli bacon cheddar salad, or coleslaw. Next up are warm comfort foods: mashed creamy potatoes, braised greens, mac and cheese, seasonal roasted vegetables, and red beans along with the crispy main event. Desserts include chocolate chip cookies, lemon meringue tarts and fudge brownies. All would be banal, says wine guy Ryan Plas, without their favorite condiment: Champagne. “There is something playful about the juxtaposition of a traditionally fancy drink accompanying this laid-back dish,” he says. “This is especially true when served family style like we do – it becomes similar to a celebration and elevates the dining experience.” The takeaway? Don’t save Champagne for a special occasion or elegant affair; Champagne is the occasion.
Fried chicken and Champagne at Coquette in New Orleans
Coquette marinates the chicken and then coats it with a classic breading of local corn flour, all-purpose flour and buttermilk; Plas turns to Champagne that’s usually a blend of estate grapes and aged on its lees for an extended time, which, he says, will be straightforward and not as distracting or overpowering. “Its primary flavors are simultaneously concentrated and rich...while its bold secondary flavors complement the juicy bit with ‘breadiness’ and salinity.”
Sparkling rosé made with a fruity grape like Gamay or Zweigelt can be an interesting pairing too, as its flavor profile is reminiscent of summer fruits like watermelon – a nice accompaniment to fried chicken. Plas has definitely served all kinds of sparkling wines at these dinners. Those done in the traditional method like Champagne, Crémant and Cava “retain their upfront tart notes and finish strong with the toasty flavor,” he says, making them “must-haves with the main chicken course.” The latter two styles tend to have a cleaner finish because of shorter aging times and less reserve style added to the blend.
Of course, Plas points out, it’s not only taste and texture that influence a pairing. “Think about how [sparkling wine] is almost always served well chilled, which has a nice cooling effect when you’re eating hot chicken fresh from the fryer.” And perhaps most importantly, “it’s a lot of fun!” Johnson concurs. “Everybody loves fried chicken: it's greasy, it's salty, it can sometimes be spicy,” she notes. “But with the addition of bubbly, you get all of your flavor without feeling like you've just eaten a pound of fat.” And that’s a culinary grand slam.
See below for sparkling wine pairings for fried chicken.
For classic breaded fried chicken:
- Champagne Taittinger NV La Brut Francaise: “At its core, you have the zesty richness and elegance from its Chardonnay-dominated blend, while its nearly four years aged in the bottle give the wine depth and toasty minerality,” says Plas.
- 2011 Jacquesson No 739 Extra Brut, Dizy, Champagne: “The Jacquesson has a distinct earthiness from using vintaged grapes – a robust and beautiful wine,” Johnson says. “The Chardonnay gives a beautiful brioche bready character with a grassy note and nuttiness, Pinot Noir lightens the palate while giving a bit of stone fruit on the palate, and Pinot Meunier adds a touch of lemon zest for structure on the finish.”
- Drappier NV Brut Carte d’Or, Reims, Champagne: “Made from mostly Pinot Noir, this would be a great choice for a pairing with a quality Champagne that wouldn’t break the bank,” Zipin says.
- Adriano Adami Prosecco Superiore, Valdobbiadene, Italy: “Get a bottle of this well-made Prosecco, find the closest Popeye’s, and you will have the perfect guilty pleasure meal,” Zipin admits.
For lightly-breaded fried chicken:
- Zanotto, Col Fondo Prosecco: “This is the original way of making Prosecco, where the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle,” Toral says. “The sediment is left inside, adding an extra layer of flavor, and the final wine has lower pressure and lighter bubbles, which are more complementing to lighter fried chicken.”
For buttermilk-battered fried chicken:
- Pierre Richard NV Crémant du Jura, Jura, France: “Taking into consideration that buttermilk tang to the chicken, this wine has some great oxidative qualities, finishing rich, full, yeasty, and just the right nuttiness to compliment the chicken,” Anctil recommends.
For spicy fried chicken:
- Cascina Garitina Niades NV Brachetto d’Acqui, Piedmont, Italy: “This delicious little aperitif is great to compliment that spice in hot chicken,” Anctil suggests. “It’s floral, fresh, full of notes of wild strawberries, and finishes with a delicate sweetness.”
- Domaine Rondeau NV Demi-Sec Rosé, Bugey-Cerdon, France: “This demi-sec sparkling wine is made from Gamay and Poulsard,” Zipin says. “There is a touch of sweetness, ripe raspberry and strawberry that would be a hit with some hot sauce.”
For a pink bubbly fried chicken pairing:
- Pierre Sparr NV Brut Rosé, Alsace, France: After a minimum of 18 months on its lees, it’s disgorged, [which] naturally shows off Pinot’s acidity and fruit and doesn't put too much emphasis on that confectionary finish,” Plas says. “It plays up a predominantly raspberry core with a watermelon finish.”
- Oudinot NV Brut Rosé Champagne, Epernay, Champagne: “It has a creamy texture that is balanced perfectly with acidity from a base of Pinot Noir,” Johnson says. “Refreshing red fruit like raspberries and strawberries, but also a fair amount of mango and melon notes on the nose and immediate palate, and large unctuous bubbles that make for a clean, yet long finish.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.