Rules for pairing fast food with wine. Part 1: Red Wines

Edwin Ferrer, a certified sommelier and owner of The Wine Lab in Costa Mesa, California tells us how to pair red wine with fast food

Just imagine the mouth-coating richness of a fatty Wagyu steak being cut by the grippy tannins of a powerful Barolo. It sets the stage for a contrasted dance between savory red meat and elegant cherries, coupled with dried roses. 

fatty steak
Photo credit: TR Davis

Similarly, picture a contrast between the brambly berry flavors of a Dry Creek Zinfandel being paired with the aggressive gaminess of venison. Or perhaps the intensity of a strawberry-laden Willamette Pinot Noir against the acrid smokiness of cedar-planked salmon. There are rules for pairing – even with fast food – right?

Sometimes the dance is more compliment than contrast, like the harmony of fruit flavors between duck a l’orange and Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Or even the simple brininess of oysters and the chalky minerality of Chablis.

In the best cases, the relationship between wine and food is a happy mix of both. But the stage doesn’t always have to be a ballroom, and the dance doesn’t always have to be a waltz – or in our case, the pairings not as fancy-shmancy.  It can be fast food.

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Keep it classy with fast food favs

Sometimes the venue is little less classy…saaaay a Taco Bell, KFC, or maybe an In-N-Out (for those of you readers lucky enough to have one around). Rest assured, the wine pairings can be just as stellar. That date night you have planned can still go off without a hitch, at least in the department of gastronomy. It is in this article that I hope to arm you with the knowledge I believe can make everyday meals outstanding. 

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Think structure

The important thing here is to consider a wine’s structure. Fat in any dish is quite an amazing thing. However, it takes up lots of space on our palates, and blocks the way for other things that SHOULD be making an appearance – most notably flavors. Luckily, wine’s answer to this is acidity & tannin, as both precipitate fat, thus clearing the path for all the other cool stuff to make their way to our taste buds. 

Florencia Potter
P.C.: Florencia Potter

Using this as context, let’s dive into the delectable, guilt-ridden world of fast food and search for some stellar wine pairings. For the sake of practicality, I will discuss wines that you can find at your local grocery, rather than having to go to a specialty wine store (although if you have one within proximity, then by all means go).

With the biggest, heaviest reds, the heaviest fast food

Usually the stuff that first comes to our minds. Cabs, Zins, Malbecs, Syrahs, Blends, and the like. They have the most flavor, the most body, the most tannin, and the most of a whole lot more. But just because they’re the most obvious doesn’t mean they should always be first choice. 

Keep in mind that these reds represent the far end of the spectrum – the Schwarzeneggers of wine selections. More specifically, the tannins in these wines are extremely abundant, and their weights are all at the top of the (fast) food chain. To keep the interaction balanced & engaging, we must make sure we partner with take-out that’s just as substantial. 

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Big red wines and Carl’s Jr. (Hardees), Five Guys, In-N-Out

The most obvious partners to these are heavy duty hamburgers. However, since were discussing the biggest reds available, think BIG like Carl’s Jr. (Hardees) Six Dollar 1/3lb Burgers, the Five Guys Double Grilled Cheeseburger, and certainly In-N-Out’s Double-Doubles and 4x4s. Other drive-thru contenders, again, remembering to think big, would be chili cheese fries, Philly cheesesteaks, & fattier iterations of Mexican dishes like barbacoa or beef burritos with gratuitous cheese. 

Pablo Merchán Montes burger
PC: Pablo Merchán Montes

In any of these cases, do be careful with anything spicy (jalapenos, red pepper flakes, etc) as tannins in wine, as well as alcohol, tend to exacerbate them for the worse. In the realm of barbeque sauce-slathered red meats, Syrahs (especially Australian Shiraz) & Zinfandels get a notable mention as they have inherent peppery/savory flavors that compliment meat, and fruit intensities that match the sweetness of the sauce. 

It’s the rough, burly tannins that cleanse the palate and restore order to your taste buds – the best partners will bleed grease through the wrapper, clog the arteries, and most importantly give the wine’s structure something more substantial to spar with.

Lighter reds with Which Wich and Flame Broiler

Think Grenache, Gamays, Pinot Noirs, Sangioveses, and more. When going lighter we naturally become more flexible with our pairings as our drinks are less demanding & aggressive (in the best cases, with no sacrifice to flavor).

We no longer need look for entrees that coat our palates in fats & protein, as these reds will be less substantial. Lighter items like delicious toasted sandwiches from Which Wich or protein + rice bowls from Flame Broiler can find their way back to our passenger seats. 

Mae Mu sandwhich
PC: Mae Mu

Pinot Noir can indeed work with fast foods but a good number (often domestically made) are oaky, bearing notes of vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, and more. While that does sound fantastic, flavors reminiscent of Grandma’s kitchen aren’t the most flexible for pairing.

Sweet spices can tend to clash with the saltier, more savory tones of cured meat, or the lively flavors of condiments like ketchup or mustard, or the raw flavors of vegetables, and even peppery spices like cayenne and paprika. However, this same acrid character makes a perfect partner to the deeply charred flavors from grilling, searing, roasting, and so on.

Thus, if your meal is just roasted chicken or pork, without excessive salt, spice, or vegetal tones Pinot works great, so long as there aren’t any of the aforementioned flavors to oppose.  

Nick Karvounis pairing wine with fast food
PC: Nick Karvounis

Beaujolais with Halal Guys

With the primary flavors being red berry fruits, Beaujolais makes a great contrast to cured meats such as ham, roast beef, and pastrami, as well as a match for livelier sauces like mustards, ketchups, and spicy mayos.

The applications of Beaujolais extend far beyond conventional sandwiches, as its vivacious fruit tones serve as a great match to strongly flavored and/or spicy foods like Cajun and Middle Eastern – just think of how notes of fresh strawberry & cherry would wonderfully contrast against a savory mouthful gyros from Halal Guys

Skyler Smith wine and fast food
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Cotes Du Rhone with Chipotle, El Pollo Loco or Indian fast food

Another French alternative for pairing would be a bottle of Cotes Du Rhone (based from Grenache) which is delivers loads of baked/dried red fruit flavors alongside secondary notes of herbs and spice, and a fuller body when compared to the former reds.

Just like Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone does well when matched with menu items that put the savory flavors of meat at the forefront, such as those deeply charred chicken & steak bowls from Chipotle or mixed piece meals from El Pollo Loco. Whether it’s Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone, you have wines that are not very tannic and have livelier red fruit flavors. 

With this in mind, Mexican dishes that dabble with red pepper flakes, cayenne, chilis, and the like become outstanding partners to either wine as their piquancy will not be offset by an excessively tannic structure (the structure of wines from the former category would make your palate feel like a flamethrower).

I will also quickly note that Indian cuisines work with these reds by virtue of the same principle.

Andy Holmes
PC: Andy Holmes

A Chianti and Subway

From another part of the world, Italian Sangiovese, often in the form of a bottle of Tuscan “Chianti”, works great with tomato themed dishes, whose inherent flavors are often hard to pair with.

Sangiovese’s own flavors of tart cherry and tomato make it a natural partner to anything that dabbles in marinara sauces – think of your favorite pizza place, or perhaps Subway’s flagship Meatball Marinara. 

Szymon12455
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Regardless of the choices in wine or food, lets remember to take the bird’s eye view and repeat our mantra of matching the overall weights & characters of both participants. After conceptually scaling both partners mentioned above, can we see how they make fine dance partners?

Contributor: Edwin Ferrer, a certified sommelier and owner of The Wine Lab in Costa Mesa, California.