I HAD BEEN expecting the email all day, but I was still nervous when my phone buzzed signaling its arrival. Attached was a menu for a wine dinner at The Capital Hotel. I had agreed to help with wine pairings, but it was the theme that made me nervous: a traditional Southern Sunday supper of hushpuppies and Cobb salad, chicken and dumplings and collard greens, smoked ribs and mac and cheese. With carrot cake, of course.
It isn’t that I don’t love a challenge. But Southern food, with its unique mishmash of sweet and savory flavors and ubiquitous richness, has long presented a bit of a wine-pairing conundrum. I’ve long been a believer in the adage “if it grows together, it goes together,” but the fact that no fine wine grows in the South throws a bit of wrench into those plans. (Sorry, but muscadine wine just doesn’t do it for me.)
In the wine-growing regions of France, chefs have had centuries of experience drinking and working with local wines to give us us some of the world’s greatest pairings: Sauternes and foie gras, Bordeaux and lamb, red Burgundy and boeuf bourguignon. In the South, however, a great deal of what we now consider the staple foods of our culture were created by slaves and former slaves who were interested only in feeding their families and had no knowledge of the great wine traditions of the world. From their toil, a rich food culture has established itself as a vital part of our national identity, one that is every bit as deserving of great wine pairings as anything to ever come out of France or Italy.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of what you’re supposed to drink with corn pudding. Or cornbread. Or even catfish. To help out, we’ve created a guide to most of the South’s major food groups.
Barbecue, Ribs and All Things Smoked
I understand that zinfandel is about as popular today as shag carpeting, and that for an entire generation of wine drinkers, the grape conjures images of the pink stuff in grandma’s fridge. But for those who are willing to put their trust in a new crop of California vintners, an entirely new style of zinfandel awaits. These are sexy, burly wines—wines with complex aromas of savory dried herbs and smoke. Green & Red Vineyard’s zinfandel ($34) is lithe and muscly, the liquid equivalent of a cheetah at full sprint. Paired with ribs, or even brisket, this wine will draw out the smoky flavors in the meat and accentuate the herbs and aromatics in the sauce.
Collards, Beans and Other Greens
There are a lot of ways you can go with this. A zippy Grüner Veltliner from Austria or even lush Napa Valley sauvignon blanc could work well. But if you just spent four hours cooking collard greens in July, then dammit, you deserve some rosé. Most leafy greens and vegetables bring a hint of bitterness to the table—that’s what requires turnip greens and collards to mellow out for hours on the stove. In essence, you need a wine that is at once bright and acidic but can also stand up to ham-hock richness. Attems pinot grigio ramato ($20) is a rosé that can do both. Made from letting the freshly pressed grape juice sit in contact with the remains of pink-skinned pinot grigio grapes, I liken it to a fruit salad of honeydew, cantaloupe and grapefruit, all covered in finely powdered raspberries.
Potatoes, Grits and Succotash
Growing up, I always thought of these as the “yellow” sides, and they were always my favorite. Rich and buttery, these dishes all want a wine that matches them in weight. My go-to in this case is always chardonnay, with Lioco’s SoCo Sonoma County chardonnay ($24) fitting the bill perfectly. Fermented entirely in steel tanks, it retains a bright backbone of acidity that cuts through the richness of mashed potatoes and grits with flavors of Opal apple, bay leaf and an undercurrent of butter. If you’ve been turned off by flabby butter-bomb chardonnays in the past, this is the bottle that will get you back on track.
All Things Fried
Listen, it doesn’t matter what it is: As long as it’s fried, you need bubbles. Fried chicken, fried okra, fried alligator, fried green tomatoes, french fries and probably even fried Twinkies—they all pair perfectly with bubbles. Sparkling wines have extremely high amounts of acidity to them, which is key to cutting through the richness of fried food. For heavier foods, like fried chicken, deer or gator, I reach for Champagne that’s made with a higher percentage of red grapes, such as Champagne Palmer & Co.’s brut rosé reserve ($80). If Champagne isn’t quite in the fish-fry budget, grab a bottle of Lucien Albrecht’s cremant d’Alsace brut rosé ($20). And know that bubbles are the Swiss Army knife of wines—they pair well with just about anything, fried or otherwise.
Surely I’m not alone in thinking that the South’s greatest culinary gifts fall into the dessert category. Whether it’s pecan pie, banana pudding, lemon icebox pie or hummingbird cake, Southerners know how to satisfy a sweet tooth. Of course, there are lots of dessert wines from all over the world that would work well here, but at the end of a long meal and especially with a slice of pecan pie, I only want a glass of whiskey. Eagle Rare 10-year bourbon whiskey ($33) is my personal favorite. Pour yourself a glass on the rocks, and cross your fingers that someone else is doing the dishes.