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McWine Pairing Tips

What should you drink with Big Macs or pizza? An expert analyzes the basic flavor components of America's favorite fast foods and suggests the perfect wines for each one.

At the end of my last trip to France, my cheap, no-brand rental car broke down on my way out of Paris, directly in front of a large—and hugely busy—McDonald's. Fate, I felt, had finally poked its finger in my back. In the nearly 20 years I'd been traveling through Europe, I had managed never to set foot in a single fast-food restaurant. This wasn't out of some highbrow pretense, mind you—when stateside, I visit my local White Castle so often they give me my change in shares of stock. It just seemed philosophically boneheaded to eat the same food over there that I could get back home. Yet there I was, stuck in front of that familiar yellow-and-red "billions and billions" sign. It was dinnertime and I was hungry. And I wasn't going anywhere soon.

I walked through curtains of Gauloises smoke and up to the counter, where in my best 10th-grade French I requested: "Un Big Mac, un Royal avec fromage (a Quarter Pounder with Cheese), des frites," and—because I couldn't resist sampling what the corporate palates had chosen to complement their cuisine—a couple of tiny bottles of vin rouge et vin blanc.

I sat there for two hours, guiltily picking at the burgers and fries, swirling and sipping the wines from little plastic cups. I was, by the way, the only one swirling and sipping anything in that place—and for good reason. Both wines were mediocre at best and actually tasted worse with the food than alone. The burgers and fries were fine.

This experience taught me two very important lessons: It doesn't pay to drive a low-rent voiture, and the French don't know jack about matching wine with fast food.

Of course, it's not their fault. The notion of pairing fast food with wine has never received much respect anywhere. This is a shame, because whether you're eating pizza in Naples or fried chicken in Nashville, wine can be served with fast food every bit as easily and deliciously as any other kind of cuisine. Perhaps even more easily.

Ask anyone who understands how to wed wine to food and they'll tell you the same thing about the whys and wherefores behind any happy couple. If a food and a wine work well together, it's due to one—or sometimes both—of the following principles: The wine and food are in some way similar (which usually diminishes the taste impression of that similar component), or the wine and food contrast in some way (which usually leaves either the wine or the food as the dominant partner).

It's been my experience that when it comes to playing matchmaker, the only elements that really matter are the ones that have to do with basic taste components (i.e., sweet, sour, salty and bitter) and characteristics (i.e., acidity or spiciness). Don't worry about ingredients, flavors, regions, colors or grape types. None is as influential as the basics. This is great news for fast-food fans, because almost every fast food in the world has a basic taste component or two that will point to just the right wine.

Take, for example, cheese-and-tomato pizza. Even though your average pizza has lots of different ingredients, the pie's taste is influenced mostly by elements of acidity (the tangy tomato sauce) and saltiness (the cheese). Using these components as a guide, you could match the pie to any number of wines from any number of places, as long as you select a wine that has enough fruit and acidity to balance the sauce and wash away the saltiness. Just remember, no matter what you pile on top of a pizza, some dominant taste will always be your beacon to the right beverage. In fact, follow my advice and you'll be able to tackle a fast-food challenge with the grace of a senior syrup steward at IHOP.

What follows is a list of some of my favorite fast foods and, for pairing, several wines, each of which has one or more of the same characteristics (or just the right counterbalance) to make a perfect match.

Fast Food: Cheese-and-tomato pizza.
Standout Components: Saltiness and acidity.
Wine-Pairing Strategy: Look for a crisp, fruity wine that will set off the tang and cleanse the palate.
Best Matches:
NV Zardetto Prosecco
Very fruity yet quite dry, a sparkling wine from the heart of the Veneto ($10).
1999 Vega Sindoa Rosado
A praiseworthy pink wine made at a state-of-the-art winery in Spain's Navarra region. It outclasses other rosados, at half the price ($7).

Fast Food: Tacos with salsa.
Standout Component: Hot spice.
Wine-Pairing Strategy: Find a wine with enough fruit (or even fizz) to hose down the fire.
Best Matches:
1998 Hardys Brut
A fresh and foamy Champagne-method sparkling wine from Australia ($10).
1999 Château Routas Rouvière Rosé
The elegance of a Provençal rosé coupled to the power of a Rhône($10).
1999 Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz
A lighthearted blast of berry fruit, from a very consistent Australian producer, which is best served slightly chilled ($8).

Fast Food: Burger with ketchup.
Standout Components: Saltiness, acidity, sweetness.
Wine-Pairing Strategy: Cut the salt and tamp down the ketchup with an off-dry or highly fruity wine.
Best Matches:
1999 Hogue Riesling
A reliable, value-priced Washington State Riesling that starts out sweet but finishes dry($9).
2000 R.H. Phillips White Zinfandel
A surprisingly polished (not at all cloying) take on a North Coast blusher ($7).

Fast Food: Fried chicken.
Standout Component: Saltiness.
Wine-Pairing Strategy: Choose fizzy or low-alcohol wines to counterbalance the salt.
Best Matches:
NV Sparr Crémant d'Alsace
A sparkling Alsace wine, with a great creamy finish, that's fruitier than most Champagne-method wines ($11).
1999 Famega Vinho Verde
Portugal's most beloved quaffer—light, refreshing and low in alcohol ($6).

Fast Food: Moo shu pork.
Standout Component: Sweetness.
Wine-Pairing Strategy: Reduce the impression of sweetness by serving a fruity, off-dry wine.
Best Matches:
1999 Foxen Chenin Blanc
A classic melon-and-pear, off-dry California Chenin($15).
1999 Columbia Crest Gewürztraminer
An aromatic Washington State offering abounding in grapefruit, lychee and apple flavors ($8).
1999 Selbach-Oster Riesling
A light, off-dry, citrusy Riesling from a top German producer ($13).

Published February 2001
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