How to Pair Wine and Junk Food

Elevate your snack game with our four, simple, sommelier tips

By Erin

We don’t like to admit it, but we all do it.

Get home from a long day, microwave a bag of popcorn, open a bottle of Cab, and zone out on the couch until it’s time for bed.

And our Wine Tribe – those who subscribe to our weekly newsletter, and those who follow us on Instagram – echo that ethos. Questions abound regularly about what to pair with a favourite guilty pleasure.

Before we get into it, I want to say that the general rules for pairing food and wine still stand. Even when we’re dealing with the most hedonistic of treats, there are some basic tenets that should be observed to maximize your gastronomic pleasure.

Sweet

Your wine must be sweeter than your food. Period.

This is a cardinal rule. For the other tastes and senses there are work-arounds, but sorry chocolate lovers, there are no wine-hacks here. Ignore this, and you will find both your wine and your food will taste bitter and flat. So why even bother?

Spicy

Think about your general game day fare: hot wings, nachos with jalapeños, that spicy pepperoni stick you like to gnaw on when things get particularly tense. If this fiery flavour profile is your jam, you need a slightly sweet, low(er) alcohol wine. And Zantac.

Fat

Ah, the F-word. Sorry gastronomes, but when you're face down in a pile of poutine, you’re basically in the centre of a Dionysus-approved fat orgy. A delicious fat orgy, but not one that’s going to keep the arteries running like well-oiled machines. Health risks aside, lucky for you this is one of the easiest categories to pair and has plenty of room for improvisation. Wines with higher acid will make your mouth water and cleanser your palate of the richness, or go full-blown hedonist and match to a rich and creamy wine.

Flavour

Finally, you need to look at the main flavour of your junk food. Is this a plain, glazed doughnut (a seriously underrated pastry IMHO), or a chocolate ganache doughnut? Are we talking buttered popcorn or dill pickle flavoured? Milk chocolate or dark chocolate? (This is a touchy subject for me, but I offer some suggestions below). The main flavour of your junk food is another cue to your wine pairing.

I’ve listed a few popular junk foods below, but clearly this is not an exhaustive list. Also, I have a tendency to shy away from the one “perfect” wine pairing. Just like men and busses, there’s always another wine that’s just as good, and perhaps even better, depending on your mood.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Salty, buttery popcorn

Pairing: Full bodied Chardonnay

Reason: Here we are mirroring flavours in the wine and junk food pairing as well as textures. Both have butter and toasty notes. There’s also an oily, slippery sensation of the melted butter that is echoed in the mouthfeel of the Chardonnay.

Nachos with salsa and guacamole

Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc

Reason: Sauvignon Blanc’s main characteristic is its herbaceous flavour. Depending on your palate you may pick it up as freshly cut grass, asparagus, green bell pepper, or even an herb like basil, cilantro, or lemon grass. If you think about the flavours of your nachos – onion, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, avocado – the matching flavours make for a great pairing. Plus, Sauvignon Blanc is a highly acidic wine, which makes it a great palate cleanser for the greasy chips, as well as cutting through the fat of cheese or sour cream.

Mozzarella sticks

Pairing: Chianti

Reason: Fat, fat, and more fat. The neutrally flavoured, yet irresistibly gooey mozz is rich and fatty as is the carb coating that allows it to be fried in one compact stick. Naturally paired with a sweet marinara sauce, this is Chianti’s game. The Italian red is one of the more acidic reds out there, making it a great wine to mop up the rich cheese and fried breadcrumbs, and it’s a classic pairing with red sauces thanks Sangiovese’s (the grape that makes Chianti) naturally earthy herbal notes.

Spicy, saucy wings

Pairing: Zinfandel (alternative: Rosé)

Reason: Wings are rich with dark meat, the sauce has a bit of vinegary tang along with the heat, and the fried, crispy skin of the chicken is salty. Zinfandels are bursting mix jammy field berry fruit flavours (almost like a sauce itself) and have enough body to stand up to the bold wing sauce.

Doughnuts

Pairing: Brut sparkling wine

Reason: This one’s a bit tricky because it’s like saying, “what wine goes best with pizza?” or “what wine goes best with chicken?” Remember Rule #4 about pairing to the strongest flavour? Right. There are as many doughnut flavours as there are wines, so this is a huge umbrella statement. Lucky for us, when in doubt sparkling wine is a very fine choice. The acidity in the wine cuts through the heaviness of the fried pastry, and the yeasty, toasty flavour of the wine mirrors the pastry flavour.

Chocolate

Can you hear that? It’s me sighing. Loudly. I’m not the biggest fan of pairing wine and chocolate, because it’s not as easy as tearing open a box of Reese’s Pieces grabbing your favourite wine and calling it a night. Once again, we return to what’s the main flavour, and as well as the need to balance the sweetness quotient.

White

Pairing: Moscato d’Asti

Reason: Don’t. be. a. hater. White chocolate is a chocolate and I don’t want to hear any arguements. White chocolate is quite rich and sweet but still delicately flavoured, requiring a wine that is a) sweeter but b) not overpowering. This calls for a light, but slightly sweet, Moscato d’Asti – the fizzy sparkling wine from northern Italy. With its peachy, grapey flavours it’s sweeter than the chocolate, and also matches the body.

Milk

Pairing: LBV Port

Reason: Louder, for those in the back. This is a perfect example of Rule #1. Milk chocolate is sweet inspire the angels to weep with pleasure.  

Dark

Pairing: Cabernet Icewine

Reason: Is dark chocolate even a chocolate? Here’s where I take issue: it’s considered healthy. You know in the new year when everyone’s trying to get in shape, and some obnoxious nutrition expert suggests that to curb cravings just treat yourself to an ounce of dark chocolate and presto! your cravings are gone? That expert is a liar. Dark chocolate is not a good alternative, and my 3pm craving is still very much present. Anyway, if you are part of that group of weirdos who want to “indulge” in the bittersweet confectionary, you can prop it up with Cabernet Icewine. The fruit-forward raspberry and strawberry flavours will pair beautifully with the chocolate, and the sweetness factor of Rule #1 is definitely in check.

Clearly, we didn’t get to every snack ­– we barely scratched the surface. If you have a favourite junk food you’d like to know how to pair with wine, leave us a comment below or connect with us on Instagram!

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