Sweet Heresy: The Art of Pairing Fine Wine and Fast Food

By / Magazine / October 5th, 2011 / 5

“Location, location, location” is what my mother, a former real estate agent, drilled into my head when I was looking to buy my first house. I took her advice. In an unkempt neighbourhood, Toronto’s two best Italian sandwich shops, California Sandwiches and San Francesco Sandwiches, face off against each other at a distance of about 100 paces. I bought my new home because it is precisely equidistant between these restaurants and their veal. There are no parks, few trees and paved lawns, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most valuable intersection in the city.

I have many vices, but the only one that actually shames me is my adoration of fast food. Veal sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and smoked meat: I will eat them all. Every consideration of ethical eating or longevity vaporizes in the face of extra bacon for 99 cents. Luckily, there is one compunction that keeps me from ingesting lethal quantities of saturated fats: I must drink wine with my fast food. Quite simply, I find the combination too delicious to miss. Unfortunately, this is a match that you won’t read about in most of the literature on food-wine pairings. No one tells you how to pair a bottle with a poutine. Until now.

Grabbing a cheap bottle of Yellow Tail Chardonnay ($10.95) or Fuzion Shiraz Malbec ($7.75) may seem like a natural choice when dining on wax paper, but in fact such wines are ill suited to the cuisine. Fortunately, the key to matching wine with fast food is simple, and it’s always the same, no matter what grubbery you’re about to consume. That’s because all junk food depends on three essential ingredients: salt, grease and fat.

Sodium is the first consideration. It has a powerful effect on the way we taste wine by exaggerating our sensitivity to tannins. Thus, fast food tends to make young, tannic wines taste clunky. Not only that, but astringent tannins are moderated by other bitter flavours in the accompanying food, like charred meat, arugula or black pepper — exactly the sort of flavours that are rare in fast foods, which instead tend to be sweetened by condiments and additives.

Salt also gives high alcohol wines an even meaner burn. If this saltiness is combined with hot spices (like those in tacos or burritos), then the alcoholic heat becomes unbearable. For this reason, when dining Chez McDonalds, I usually avoid heavy wines like Aussie Shirazes. Frankly, a Big Mac requires more subtlety.

The fatty, greasy nature of fast food also has potent implications. The primary way to cut through all this oil and keep the meal refreshing is to choose wines that are highly acidic. On the other hand, wines that are low in acidity (like many New World reds and over-oaked Chardonnays) will seem flaccid when paired with fried food.

Tabulate all these considerations and a counterintuitive picture arises; the ideal red wine to match with fast food will be made in an Old World style with low alcohol, moderate fruit and lots of acidity. It should have enough guts to stand up to sugary condiments, which means that Pinot Noir won’t be suitable. Yet it should still be made of softer grapes (like Grenache or Sangiovese), or it should be well aged so that the tannins are pliant.

For red meat, I usually turn to a well-made bottle from the South of France, like the Mas des Bressades 2009 “Cuvée Tradition” ($14.95). Mas des Bressades is an outstanding and consistent producer, and their Cuvée Tradition, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, has lively blackberry flavour spiked with thyme, tea and lavender. Another good choice is the Sella & Mosca 2006 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva ($14.95). This surprisingly complex Grenache marries earthy, mature aromas to the freshness of tart cherries. Both wines are light bodied, but they have a special intensity that can stand up to a messy cheeseburger or a meatball sandwich.

I recommend sparkling wine for deep fried food like fish & chips. The carbonation slices through the oily batter and helps expose the underlying flavour of the fish. A little residual sugar in the wine can also offset the taste of salt, which makes off-dry sparklers like Prosecco ideal.

However, if you’re serving Kentucky Fried Chicken to your dinner guests, an effervescent Italian bubbly might not be substantial enough. To tackle all eleven herbs and spices, it’s best to select something heavier like a sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir grapes. For example, Chandon’s Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine from California ($24.95) is fantastic value for a sparkler made in the traditional method — with its elegant balance of tropical fruit, acidity and spice, it is an ideal accompaniment to even the deadliest of meals.

Of course, not every fast food meal has to be a crime against nature. More and more restaurateurs have started approaching street food with a sense of purity usually reserved for fine dining. “I would not categorize it as ‘gourmet’ fast food, simply because I don’t want it to sound like my food is out of reach,” Nick auf der Mauer told me. “I like to call it ‘good food, done fast’. You can call it a trend, but I think it’s here to stay.”

I hope Nick is here to stay. He just opened up Porchetta and Co. (825 Dundas W., Toronto), a shop dedicated almost exclusively to making sandwiches from sliced porchetta. Porchetta is a traditional Italian roast made from a pork shoulder wrapped in prosciutto and re-wrapped in cured pork belly. Such a recipe argues strongly for the existence of a benevolent deity. Nick’s meat is as textured, creamy and succulent as any I’ve tasted.

A few blocks away from Porchetta and Co. is another modern restaurant with a traditional feel, Caplansky’s Delicatessen (356 College Street, Toronto). Caplansky’s opens a door to the artisanal past of Jewish delis, when even the mustard was handcrafted. His smoked meat is absurdly tasty — a stratified mound of spice, hickory, and molten fat. I asked the proprietor, Zane Caplansky, what people drank at his restaurant. “Mainly beer, but we sell a surprising amount of wine,” he replied. “We serve Peninsula Ridge Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc. My guiding philosophy is that if I don’t make it from scratch here in house then I’ll find whoever does it the same way. That is: handmade, homemade, the old fashioned way.”

When dining on something as good as porchetta or smoked meat, don’t hold back. I usually select a well-aged Rioja, like the recently released Don Jacobo 1995 Gran Reserva ($27.95). The crisp cherry fruit amplifies the complex flavours in the meat, while the rich protein draws out the Rioja’s mellow undertones of lanolin, milk chocolate and cedar. The harmony between the two enters the nervous system like a narcotic.

My friends laugh at me for drinking Crémant de Bordeaux with a 6-pack of Chicken McNuggets. What they don’t understand is that fast food doesn’t have to be a thoughtless consumption of empty calories. By opening a bottle of wine, I can turn any meal into a ritual. After all, even the lowliest dish of poutine can be fulfilling, depending on your approach. Of course, I have to live every moment to its fullest — with the kind of food I eat, I could die any moment.


Matthew Sullivan lives in Toronto. Besides writing about wine, he is a lawyer practicing public law, which helps pay the bar tab. His weekly wine column for Precedent Magazine can be found at www.lawandstyle.ca/shortcellar.

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