Chicken Wings & Wine

Chicken wings, no matter how they’re prepared, are among the simplest but memorable pleasures of life. Be sure to mark the occasion with a glass of wine.

Wine?

Well, yes. Beer may be the traditional choice for wings, especially those sauced up in classic Buffalo style. With a little bit of experimentation, though, you can find just the right wine for whatever type of wings you are serving—even the honey barbecue wings used in Good Eating’s tasting.

Natalie MacLean, author of “Red, White and Drunk All Over,” recommends an off-dry riesling or a fruity merlot with honey barbecue wings.

“The sweetness and tangy flavors in the wings need a wine with a touch of sweetness, whether that’s some residual sugar in the riesling or fruit ripeness in the merlot,” MacLean said. “But, for fun, try a spumante. This lightly sparkling, off-dry Italian bubbly is amazing with many honey barbecue dishes but with chicken wings it’s divine.”

What wine to serve with chicken wings matters because we Americans eat so many of them. The National Chicken Council estimates 12 billion chicken wings, some 2.6 billion pounds, will be marketed in 2008. And that’s just wings sold as wings, not the wings still attached to the bird.

I posed the “wing-wine” question to a number of Chicago-area experts and common themes emerged. The perfect wing wines would be crisp, refreshing and able to play well with the often bold flavors of the various sauces used as glazes.

Tom Benezra of Sal’s Beverage World touts riesling, among other wine varieties, to pair with wings.

“Riesling and chenin blanc in their California and Washington state versions provide refreshing fruitiness and a crisp finish without the minerality of Old World styles, making for a smooth combination,” he said. “Anyone looking for an excuse to drink white zinfandel has found it here. It’s a perfect match, both in terms of its soft, fruity flavor and its all-American heritage.”

Barbara Rooks of Schaefer’s in Skokie recommends Wente’s Riverbank riesling, with its 24 percent share of gewurztraminer, because of its greater weight and spiciness. She also thinks an Austrian gruner veltliner, such as those made by Rainer Wess, would work, especially because the wine has a note of nutmeg on the finish.

Rooks’ favorite wing wine is a Spanish red, a garnacha like Monte Oton. She thinks the wine’s light cherry flavor and spiciness works with the heat and flavors of the wings.

Go with red Rhone varieties if the wings are slathered with barbecue sauce, suggested Bill Newton, wine and special events manager for Binny’s Beverage Depot.

“I would look at a Central Coast syrah,” he said. “Beckmen syrah and Beckmen Cuvee Le Bec, which is made from a blend of Rhone varietals, would both go well with the barbecue sauce. The smoky, spice flavor profile in these two wines would be a great match.”

Efrain Madrigal of Sam’s Wines & Spirits is not so convinced red wine can work with wings, especially Buffalo wings.

“The vinegary hot sauce would kill just about all reds,” he said. “Rosés and whites would be better, but I would go with something bubbly. Champagne or methode champenoise styles may be too austere, so I would go with a softer, creamier prosecco. Prosecco also tends to have a bit lower alcohol, so it won’t amplify the heat from the wing sauce.”

Standing up to honey barbecue

Admittedly, there’s a certain over-the-top zaniness in pairing a $110 bottle of French Champagne with a mess of honey barbecue chicken wings ordered from the Wing Zone restaurant in Evergreen Park. But it works—and provides a little comic relief in these dire times.

The Atlanta-based Wing Zone chain sells chicken wings in 25 different flavors; honey barbecue is one of the faves. Makes sense as there is a lot of honey barbecue this and honey barbecue that out there. It’s a flavor that needs to be paired with many different wines to get the right match. Wing Zone’s honey barbecued wings had a pronounced but appetizing smoky aroma. The sauce was dark, sticky, sweet and just a little spicy. The chicken was fried until golden and crunchy before being sauced.

For Good Eating’s blind tasting, there were six wines: three white, one sparkling rosé, two reds. Each wine was sampled on its own and scored. Then the wine was paired with the wings and scored again. It is that wing-matching score given below.

2007 Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc

This tart, crisp sauvignon blanc had grapefruit on the nose and a flavor that offered touches of pear, stone and black pepper. Tasters loved this Napa Valley white on its own and found it ably supported the wings. 3 corkscrews

$28

1998 Pol Roger Rosé

Ah, the decadence: bubbly and wings. Yet, this pretty salmon-colored sparkler was great on its own. There was a toasty note to the nose and the crisp flavor was enlivened with touches of tart berries. The Champagne balanced the sweetness of the sauce while highlighting the pepperiness of the chicken. 3 corkscrews

$110

2006 Joel Gott Zinfandel

Terrific on its own, this California red was aromatic with notes of cedar, incense, spice and blackberries. Most tasters thought the zin helped the wings by cutting the sauce’s richness. A few naysayers thought the wings were overwhelmed by the wine, thus dropping its score slightly. 3 corkscrews

$15

2006 Torres Sangre de Toro

This inexpensive Spanish garnacha blend had notes of spice and raspberry on the nose. The rich fruit flavor was overlaid with spice, wood and black pepper. The red worked well with the wings, although some panelists worried the wine might be a little too heavy. 3 corkscrews

$8

2006 Dry Creek Chardonnay

This Russian River Valley white had that classic chardonnay nose of toasty oak. The flavor was crisp, with notes of apple, pear and oak. Tasters thought the match was workable but not very exciting. One panelist thought the oak of the wine was too much with the smoke of the wings. 2 corkscrews

$18

2006 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc

A blend of grenache blanc and roussane, this California white had a charmingly floral aroma but tasted somewhat watery. The chicken wings gave the wine some sass. 2 corkscrews

$18

Sources: These wines may or may not be in stock at your local store; inquire first. At least one of these wines was found at these stores: Binny’s Beverage Depot, Sam’s Wines & Spirits, Sal’s Beverage World, Cabernet and Co. in Glen Ellyn, DiCarlo Fine Wines & Spirits in Mundelein, Dobby’s World Wide Wine & Liquors in Palatine, Schaefer’s in Skokie, The Wine Cellar in Palatine. Prices may vary from store to store. Prices are rounded off.

Corkscrew ratings
4 Excellent
3 Very good
2 Good
1 Fair
None: Poor

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