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Jan 24, 2006
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Wine With . . . Chili

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


A big pot of chili is always simmering on the stove at our neighborhood Super Bowl get-together.  And while lots of folks drink beer with it, plenty of others opt for wine.  So with the big game just around the corner, we wanted to find out which wines pair best with this always popular football treat.


Since a Super Bowl party is apt to draw a crowd, affordability played a part in our choice of wines to try for this edition of "Wine With. . ."  We sampled fourteen, all with suggested retail prices under $20 a bottle.  And to keep everything wine-friendly, we intentionally made our chili on the fairly mild side--with some heat, but nothing tear-inducing.  We served it with grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and sliced avocados.  Then we popped the corks and got down to work.


In the past, we've only paired red wines with chili.  Since some of our neighbors prefer whites, we made sure to include a couple in this line-up.  One, a South African Chenin Blanc, proved too light, but we were pleasantly surprised by how well a lush but balanced New World Chardonnay performed.  The key wasn't just its rich character, but also its focus, as no single element (wood, fruit, acid, etc.) seemed out of place with the food.  Much the same proved true of the reds.  The wines that matched best came from different places and were made with different grapes, but they all impressed us with their harmony, balance, and structure. 


That certainly wasn't true of many of the other wines we tried.  Going into this tasting, we thought that powerful reds would perform well.  A couple did, but plenty did not.  A Petite Sirah tasted clunky, while a 2003 Côtes-du-Rhône seemed unpleasantly hot and heavy.  And the chili emphasized the oak in both a California Syrah and a South Australian Shiraz, making the wines resemble vanilla taffy.  Ugh!  At the other end of the spectrum, a number of otherwise subtle reds seemed empty and washed out when paired with this dish.  This was especially true of a Rioja, a Sangiovese from Umbria, and a Sonoma County Merlot. 


At the end of the evening we concluded that while no one type of wine works best with chili, clean and focused ones provide the most pleasure.  Clearly, chili isn't a dish with which to serve light, delicate wines.  At the same time, though, muscular ones don't necessarily do all that well.  Harmony, not power, turns out to be the most important factor.




Approx. Price




Napa Valley









Like unequal teams, white wine and chili seem mismatched in terms of both weight and refinement.  This full-bodied Chardonnay, however, held its own with the hearty ingredients.  While not as satisfactory a partner as the very best reds, it was still pretty tasty, and the white-wine-only crowd will cheer for it.




Maipo Valley


Cabernet Sauvignon

"Antiguas Reservas"


(Imported by Billington)





Always a wine with lots of earthy character, this Chilean red really struts its stuff with chili.  Both elements--food and wine--come together as gracefully as a perfectly thrown pass.


J. Lohr,

Paso Robles


Cabernet Sauvignon

"Seven Oaks"





Part of the appeal of this particular pairing is that the varietally-expressive wine adds a classy note to an essentially pedestrian dish.  Another example of good teamwork here is the way the oak-generated hint of vanilla in the wine enhances the spice in the chili.



Rancho Zabaco,

Sonoma County



"Sonoma Heritage Vines"







Very well-matched in terms of tonality, this Zin's briary fruit, well-defined structure, and pliant tannins carried the spiciness of the chili into the gustatory end zone.


Valentin Bianchi,

San Rafael, Mendoza





(Imported by Quintessential)





A straightforward wine with more than a touch of class (excellent depth and length), this Malbec was a true team player.  Sipping it brought out the best in all the elements of the chili (meat, beans, tomatoes, spice).  A touchdown!