The Quintessential Guide to Fast Food + Wine Pairings
Which pairs better with a plate of Panda Express Orange Chicken: a Gewürztraminer or a Rhone Valley Rosé?
Different people will tell you different things. The Gewürz is perfect for bringing out the natural spice of the orange sauce, while the Rosé marries swimmingly with citrus. And while an entirely different school might say pair it with a Peach Sparkling Arbor Mist (a school of the sorority-pledging, college fresh-woman variety, mayhaps), I’m guessing that even when drunk alongside imitation soy meat, something that calls itself a fast food wine should still be, well, a wine.
Anyway, all disputes aside, a perfect Panda wine pairing does exist, and there’s an actual science behind it, as I discovered on my most recent visit to Total Wine & More. By applying the same wine pairing techniques normally reserved for steaks and lobsters and smoked mozzarellas to Taco Bell DLTs and McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, my expert sommelier guided me through the perfect methodology for classing up an average Tuesday night.
Here’s all you really need for a good fast food wine: a high degree of acidity, to cut through the grease and fat; a fair price point, so someone can just pick it up at the store on the way home from work. (These, for instance, were all under $20.) It should complement, not battle, and certainly not overwhelm, the medley of real and artificial flavors, and as a nod to our readers, the perfect Foodbeast fast food wine should also be a little bit “out of the box”—something that most people probably haven’t heard of or just wouldn’t think to drink with, say, french fries or a Double-Double.
These are the best wines to pair with your favorite fast food menu items, or in other words, the ultimate indulgence paired with the ultimate indulgence. We dare you not to try them all at once.
McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets x Clara Brut Sparkling Wine California North Coast
TW: “I get honey right off the top with this. It’s a very unique, but true, strong honey. And that was one of the first things I thought of with the chicken nuggets, is that a lot of people dip chicken nuggets into honey, and there are a lot more white sauces for chicken nuggets. It would have also been very easy to recommend a Zinfandel because a lot of people dip chicken nuggets into barbecue sauce.”
Verdict: The champagne definitely cuts through the lingering grease and makes the whole eating process a lot more pleasant. This would make a classier, less guilty alternative to sweet and sour sauce.
TW: “I’d say that went together nicely. Any day with champagne is a good day.”
Clara Brut Sparkling Wine California North Coast
Dry, Peach, Toast, Full-Bodied
“North Coast, CA – Round and full-bodied, with rich nectarine and peach fruit. This sparkler has a nicely developed character with toasted hazelnut, honey, toffee and brioche flavors.”
$17.99 @ Total Wine
McDonald’s French Fries x Phebus Torrontes
TW: “I thought of french fries as a snack, more than anything else. If anyone’s just going to get french fries, it might be on the way home from picking up the kids from school or getting out of class as a college student. So with that, it’s a great little middle of the day wine. Especially in Southern California, every day is beautiful. Even the bad days are beautiful by 2 o’clock. I thought primarily of picnicking, sitting on the patio, on the porch. And Torrontes has just got an excellent springtime feeling to it. It’s refreshing, it’s crisp. And I think it would pair well with the starchiness and the saltiness of the fries, without being terribly sweet.”
Verdict: This one I didn’t understand as much. It was a good wine, but I wouldn’t necessarily pair it with the fries, any more than plain old ketchup.
TW: “All Torrontesses are different. The citrus battles a little bit with the sweetness of the potato. A to F, I’d give this one a B.”
Crisp, Lemon, Citrus, Light-Bodied
“Salta, Argentina – From Argentina’s northern region of Salta comes this crisp and refreshing, oak-free white wine made from 100% Torrontes. A nose of fresh cut lemons with a hint of lime is followed by layers of citrus on the dry and refreshing palate. Pair with seafood and spicy dishes.”
$9.99 @ Total Wine
Kentucky Fried Chicken x Cloud Break Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
TW: “For fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, I thought, ‘How American is that.’ And the best-selling grape in the United States of America is Chardonnay. So I had to go with an American Chard for this. . . Fried chicken is more of a ‘stick-to-your-ribs’ meal. It’s filling, even with just a little bit, and quintessentially American. I grabbed the Cloud Break Chardonnay because it’s got some of that weight behind it for not too expensive. This wine drinks like a much more expensive bottle. With that, it’s got that comfort food element along with the weightiness of the wine. But it’s still got enough acidity to cut through the fat.”
Verdict: Like the chicken nuggets, this pairing just made sense – a solid refresher after the greasy chicken which also didn’t battle with the sweetness of the mashed potatoes.
Cloud Break Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
Oak, Apple, Butter, Full-bodied
“California – The Cloud Break Chardonnay is rich with flavors of toasted oak, vanilla, butter, apple, pear and hints of coconut. 100% malolactic fermentation is used to give it nice body and texture. Refined acidity and hints of green apple linger on the elegant finish.”
$7.99 @ Total Wine
Subway Turkey Sandwich x Dr Heidemanns Riesling Dry
TW: “The sandwich can get tricky because so many people do so many different things with their sandwiches. Riesling is a classic pairing with turkey . . . Turkey tends to be a relatively dry meat, and not just in the fact that many people overcook it. It’s usually a touch bland. And Rieslings, there’s nothing bland about them. They’re just fantastic and there are so many different styles. You can really find a Riesling to find your style and what you like. It’s also a matter of acidity and the viscous, sort of heavy mouthfeel of Riesling can help detract from a dryer piece of meat.”
Verdict: The sandwich was mostly bread, and dry bread at that, so there wasn’t too much going on here. Solid Riesling though, which went well with the turkey once it was separated from the rest of the sandwich.
Dr Heidemanns Riesling Dry
Crisp, Citrus, Mineral, Light-bodied
“Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany – Known as a ‘Trocken’ style wine which is the German word for ‘dry.’ This 100% Riesling from the renowned estate of Dr. Heidemanns – Bergweiler has all the citrus and mineral notes you would expect but unlike typical Mosel wines. Pair with seafood and chicken.”
$14.99 @ Total Wine
Panda Express Orange Chicken x Château de Nages Costières-de-Nîmes Rosé Reserve 2011
TW: “We’re pairing this with an orange chicken, which we know has got some sweetness to it. And because I didn’t want the sweetness to battle, I went with a distinctive dry rosé. I could have gone with a dry white or a dry red, but I think the red would have overpowered the chicken, though the dry white would have gone just fine. But I picked this one specifically because of the fruit flavors you get out of a rosé often are red fruits, along with the crispness, lightness and freshness that people associate with white wine. I get some strawberry, some raspberry notes, and a touch of a citrus zest and that marries really well with the orange chicken. And it’s still acidic enough to fight against the fried aspect of the chicken and the rice.”
Verdict: I liked how this pairing was still fruity but not overly sweet, which allowed both to keep their flavor profiles at a nice balance. One of my favorites.
Château de Nages Costières-de-Nîmes Rosé Reserve 2011
Crisp, Cherry, Melon, Raspberry, Light-bodied
“Rhone, France – Fragrant and fresh aromas of ripe cherries and melon mixed with rose petals. This blend of Grenache and Syrah displays the bouquet in flavor, along with some raspberry, in a light to medium bodied style. All of the wonderful ripe fruit flavors fade into a crisp finish.”
$9.99 @ Total Wine
Weinerschnitzel Chili Cheese Dog x Hugl Zweigelt
TW: “When I think hot dogs, I think barbecue, and two other wines pop into my mind. If you’re doing barbecue sauce, Zinfandel goes really well. Otherwise there’s a grape from Argentina which is perfect for grilling. But this today was a chili dog and that changes the game. So I went with a little more of a traditional country known for sausages [Austria] and with the grape that many of your readers may have never heard before, called Zweigelt . . .The truth is it’s very similar to Merlot, but unique. The first thing I noticed is this is a kind of earthy wine and it’s not terribly fruity. A lot of people associate fruit with sweetness, but I’m guessing that the chili in this chili dog is going to be relatively sweet chili, and I didn’t want that to battle. Also this particular Zweigelt has got a bit of smokiness and I still wanted to keep that element of barbecue.”
Verdict: The winner by far – this pairing not only made sense, but it completely enhanced the flavors of both the chili dog and the wine, which also managed to diminish the saltiness of the hot dog perfectly. If you are only going to try one of these nine, make it this one.
Fresh Fruit, Easy Drinking, Cherry
“Austria – This variety was created in 1922, when Dr. Fritz Zweigelt crossed two grapes – Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch. The wine boasts a concentrated color, fruity and spicy aromas, and cherry flavors. Full-bodied, smooth and round, the wine is an ideal food companion.”
$13.99 @ Total Wine
Pizza Hut Pizza x Sobon Sangiovese
TW: “Italians drink wine with every meal and most people think of pizza as Italian, but this kind of pizza is pretty American. So why not with an American grown wine from an Italian grape? Sangiovese is a grape grown in Italy. Some of the best Italian wines are made with Sangiovese. So this is an American take on an Italian wine and an American take on an Italian staple. It’s got great acidity to it as well, so it’ll cut through some of the fattiness of that pepperoni and sausage, but it will pair well with the sweetness of the sauce and the doughiness of the pizza dough.”
Verdict: I wasn’t a fan of the cheese and dough here, but the meats and wine together were on point.
Intense Fruit, Cherry, Full-bodied
“Amador County, Sierra Foothills, CA – The Sangiovese grape is a native of Tuscany, Italy which has adapted well to Sierra Foothill soils. It has fragrant berry aromas and flavors, overlaid with hints of tea, spice, leather and mint. Enjoy with antipasti, pasta dishes and pizza.”
$8.99 @ Total Wine
Taco Bell DLT x Oak Grove Petite Sirah
TW: “This is a pretty common grape that most people have never heard of. The joke is there’s nothing ‘petite’ about Petite Sirah. It’s full-fruit, full-bodied, full-aroma, full-mouthfeel. It’s a big wine for such a small name. I’ve never had the Doritos Locos Taco, but what I assumed is this is gonna be an explosion of flavor in your mouth. It’s sort of an aggressive thing. And with that big flavor, we need a big wine too. But we’re also not trying to get anything that’s going to battle. Because a lot of American cheeses don’t have that strong a flavor, a lot of it’s time it’s just for mouthfeel or binding. The mozzarella that they use on pizzas tends not to be that smoked mozzarella, it’s more of something to hold toppings on. For this I thought much more of the soy meat and the Doritos which are going to be the driving flavors.”
Verdict: The flavors here didn’t harmonize too well and kind of got lost, leaving me mostly with the taste of the Petite Sirah and the texture of the taco meat, which was slightly less than appetizing.
TW: “Tasting it with the Nacho Cheese, I feel like it cut the fruit down a little bit in the Petite Sirah. With the Cool Ranch, I might actually go back to one of the whites or the rosé.”
Oak Grove Petite Sirah
Intense, Raspberry, Strawberry, Medium-bodied
“California- Aromas of raspberry and strawberry lead to powerful flavors of crushed red berry fruit, plum jam and the spicy notes typical of this varietal. The interesting combination of flavors makes this wine a perfect match with grilled meats, cold cuts and strong cheese.”
$5.99 @ Total Wine
In-N-Out Double-Double x Avenel Cellars Cabernet Napa
TW: “Now let me preface this by saying, if this was Animal Style, the flavor profile will be different, there’s no question about it. So barbecue, charbroiled burgers, this is a perfect one. This is a red blend. It’s primarily Cab and it’s rockin’. It’s Napa valley fruit, the price on it is outstanding. It’s under $20 — $18.99 – but I like to think that In-N-Out Burger is the Cadillac of the fast food burger world. There’s also this idea that In-N-Out’s not dealing with the pink slime. They want a quality product in people’s hands, so why not spend a little more money on the wine that you’re gonna drink with it?
“This is a much dryer wine. It’s got higher tannins, sort of that feeling that your mouth is dryer after drinking it. And tannic acid goes really well with that fattiness of specifically beef, but I’d match this with a steak too. Maybe not a big porterhouse, but something a little leaner. I think it’s got a lot of character and I wanted to finish with that sort of thing that you remember where, upon eating a Double-Double, you might be full. You might not want to touch those french fries at all. Because it’s kind of a big sandwich, but you’ll definitely want to keep drinking this wine, because it pairs really well with this food and continues to be delicious.
“I also took into account the caramelized onions and the sauce. The sauce is acidic but it’s also sweet and this one I think can cut through it just fine. Some of the flavors might marry well, so it’s sweeter, fruitier, but I thought more about the meat. The sauce is like an accent, the meat is what carries the flavor of the hamburger.”
Verdict: This one I tried at home after the interview because the line at the In-N-Out drive-thru around 12 in the afternoon was much too long, but you definitely can’t go wrong pairing a burger and Cab, though I’m not sure it wins me over as an alternative to a strawberry shake.
Avenel Cellars Cabernet Napa
Concentrated, Blueberry, Cherry, Full-bodied
“Napa Valley, California- This Cabernet was handcrafted by renowned winemaker Marco DiGiulio. It expresses wonderful fullness and suppleness with soft and integrated tannins. The layers of black cherry, blueberry and cocoa are dominant throughout the wine. Enjoy with steak or ribs.”
$18.99 @ Total Wine
Of course, hard workers that they were, the Total Wine staff had other fast food pairings that we hadn’t even thought of, such as El Pollo Loco chicken and a Riesling, or a Rubio’s Fish Taco with a Montignac Picpoul de Pinet. The absolute winner? Sriracha and Gewürztraminer.
“If you’re like so much of the world loving Sriracha on absolutely everything,” they insisted, “you know Gewürztraminer is going to be your best friend.”
Good wine doesn’t need to be expensive, and it certainly doesn’t need to be paired with a big ol’ slab of (probably fake) Kobe steak. Maybe next time you’re shopping for a nice weekday dinner wine, you’ll stop and think to yourself, “Do you want fries with that?”
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