When it comes to food and wine pairings, you shouldn’t overthink it. While there are certain flavor profiles that will send a palate over the moon and others that might make one shake one’s head in disgust, it’s important to drink and eat what brings joy.
Ultimately, the goal of a wine pairing is to balance salt, remove fat, supplement acidity, or cool heat in a dish of food. From pizza to polish, here are six classic Chicago foods and the wines that help take them to the next level.
Harold’s Chicken Shack 4-Piece Salt & Pepper Hard Fried Potato Chips (mild gravy on the side) and Cava
Whether you’re visiting Chicago for the first time or the umpteenth time, grabbing something from Harold’s Chicken is absolutely a rite of passage. Founded in 1950, Harold’s Chicken Shack is known for its crispy chicken and mild sauce, a spicy mix of barbecue sauce, ketchup, hot sauce and spices perfect for dipping. Due to the saltiness of both the chicken and the fries, a bottle of Cava, Spain’s beloved sparkling wine, would be a great option to enjoy with this combination. Bubbles and fried foods are always a perfect match, and the cava’s flavor profile of green apple, citrus and a hint of roasted honey will make this meal tasty and satisfying.
The bottle: Segura Viudas Heredad Brut Reserve ($29.99 at Binny’s)
Candlelite Chicago and Chablis BBQ Chicken Tavern Style Pizza
Sorry to disappoint anyone who thought that deep dish would be included, but tavern-style pizza is the official pie in town. The beauty of this style of pizza is that you can dress it up however you like. Candlelite’s BBQ Chicken Pizza has a balanced taste: tangy barbecue sauce, crisp red onions, gooey cheese and generously seasoned chicken pieces. And because of the fat in the cheese and chicken, your palate will crave something crisp and refreshing. Chablis (also known as Chardonnay from Burgundy, France) is a lean, aromatic white wine with flavors of melon and citrus (think lemon and lime) with a crisp acidity.
The bottle: Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Domaine Sainte Claire 2020 ($17.99 at Binny’s)
Garrett’s Mix of Garrett’s Popcorn and Riesling
There’s nothing like the sweet scent of a bag of Garrett Mix (formerly known as Chicago Mix). The irresistible goodness of CheeseCorn mixed with CaramelCrisp is a quintessential snack for Chicagoans and non-Chicagoers alike, and it’s a combination of flavors that a white wine needs to make the whole experience harmonious. Drinking a dry Riesling while eating a handful of Garrett’s will be the ultimate achievement of balance, helping to elevate both the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the caramel.
The bottle: Black Star Farms Arcturos Dry Riesling ($17.99 at Binny’s)
Italian meat sandwich (dry, sweet and spicy) and Bordeaux mixture
This pairing was a bit tricky because everyone orders their Italian meat in a different way. But if you don’t necessarily go for the extra juicy sandwich version, a red Bordeaux blend will be the best accompaniment to this Chicago classic. Red wine is always a great pairing for hearty meat, but because Italian steak sandwiches can be customized to suit your unique taste, a combination of dominant merlot with supporting cabernet sauvignon won’t overwhelm your palate if you choose to get both sweet and spicy. Peppers.
The bottle: Chateau Lilian Ladouys Saint Estephe 2016 ($25.99 at Binny’s)
Maxwell Street Polish (with everything) of and pinot noir
As fickle of a grape that pinot noir may be, it is the perfect wine to accompany all kinds of food. The richness of Polish sausage calls for a medium-bodied wine that is fruity with flavors like dark red cherry and juicy pomegranate with a hint of baking spice. And don’t worry about additions—this Oregon pinot noir will pair beautifully with any dressing.
The bottle: Other People’s Maison Noir OPP Pinot 2020 ($22.99 at Binny’s)
Jibarito beef and zinfandel
Another steak sandwich calls for another red wine, but this time one with a little more jam on the palate. The Idea of a California Zinfandel might give some people pause (mainly due to the era of white zinfandel in the 1980s), but trust me on this one. The sweet, starchy banana “scone” with everything in between (sliced steak, tomatoes, lettuce, and a bit of mayo) needs a red wine with structure and subtle sweetness, and zinfandel delivers on both.
The bottle: Seghesio Zinfandel Old Vine 2018 ($24.99 at Binny’s)