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Apr 17, 2007
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Wine With. . . Fried Chicken

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Breasts or legs?  Fried in lard or oil?  Coated with bread crumbs, flour, or cornmeal?  Pan-fried or deep fried?  However you prefer it, fried chicken has become one of the world's most popular fast foods.  KFC, the biggest fried chicken chain, sells close to a billion chicken dinners annually in more than 80 countries and territories around the globe, from Australia to Zimbabwe.  If Wikipedia's trivia is to be believed, many families in Japan (who have made reservations weeks in advance) even have their traditional Christmas dinner at KFC!  Colonel Sanders is such an icon there that life-size statues of him stand in front of every one of the 600 KFC Japanese outlets, and wind-up replicas of the Colonel are favored toys.


Here in Baltimore, we are still hoping to find fabulous take-out fried chicken, but meanwhile we dig into less-than-perfect adaptations with gusto.  Yes, of course we could make our own, but we doubt it would ever be as good as the version our friend Pam makes.  Besides, we tend to think of fried chicken as terrific take-out food.  We don't have it very often, but after a long day hunched over computers, when it's late and we've got nothing else planned for dinner, one of us will dash out and pick up some fried chicken while the other one puts a stack of paper napkins on the table and opens some wine.


We've always liked voluptuous Chardonnay with fried chicken, and this feeling was confirmed recently when we sampled fifteen or so wines with an order of take-out fried chicken.  The hefty texture of a big, fruity Chardonnay balances the fat quotient in fried chicken, and a touch of oak further amplifies the pleasant sensation.  Too much oak however, in either red or white wine, tends to turn bitter with deep fried foods -- as the somewhat aggressive American oak in a Spanish Rioja clearly demonstrated in this particular occasion.  We'd wondered if the acidity inherent in certain white wines might provide a cleansing contrast to the greasiness of fried chicken, but we found instead that crisp whites tend to loose whatever delicate flavors they may have and end up weak and insubstantial on the palate.  This certainly was true in the case of an otherwise lovely Spanish Albarino and a Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany.  By contrast, a Marsanne from California that, on its own, was so front-loaded with fruit and heavy with alcohol that it seemed an unlikely partner for food, was in fact like a vinous blotter, absorbing and neutralizing the grease.  In general, we liked white wine better than red with the dish, for any hint of tannin or greenness was amplified by the deep-fried chicken.  One common trait in all the wines we preferred was a touch of sweetness.  Too much sweetness might make it a heavy meal, but the right balance of sweet fruit works well, especially when there is a hint of spice in the chicken.  




Approx. Price



Clos La Chance, Monterey County (California) Chardonnay Unoaked 2006





Though unoaked, this Chardonnay still has plenty of heft, and its rich, ripe character is what made it partner so well with the chicken.  The fruit, reminiscent of ripe apples and pears, tastes ever so slightly sweet - just the thing with fried food.




Gainey Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills (California) Chardonnay 2005




Well-balanced and structured, this still is a rich, oak-laden Chardonnay, so very true to type (and to consumer expectations).  Its opulent, somewhat tropical character made it work wonderfully with the chicken.




Domaine Gerovassiliou, Epanomi (Greece) Malagousia 2005

(Imported by Sotiris Bafitis)




A fairly obscure grape variety, Malagousia yields creamy, ripe whites with peachy fruit flavors.  The sweet character of that fruit, coupled with the wine's rich texture, are what made it complement this particular dish.




JC Cellars, Dry Creek Valley (California) Marsanne Preston Vineyard 2005





A very rich, ripe, even heavy wine, perhaps too much so on its own, lightened and became soft and succulent with the chicken.  This pairing served as a vivid reminder that a biter of food can radically change the taste of wine.




Robert Stemmler, Carneros (California) Pinot Noir 'Estate Grown' 2004





Our favorite red with the chicken (we tried five), this Pinot has sweet cherry fruit and a spicy undertone.  Both characteristics married nicely with the dish.