Growing up in the south, particularly from our “neck of the woods,” you learn early on the importance of good eatin’. I’m sure I’m not alone in reminiscing about all those meals at grandmas, where the whole family squeezed in elbow-to-elbow to indulge in her home cooking. In fact, with most of my childhood memories having turned to fuzzy clips of vague emotions, these times of celebration and post-church family fellowship are some of the only clear recollections I have left. As I’ve gotten older and broadened my culinary horizons, I still have to admit that as much as I love exploring other cuisines, my heart will always belong to the simple, greasy, down-home dishes of Appalachia. But how will that ever co-exist with my newfound love of French wine? Beautifully, it turns out!
When I decided to make my piece this week about pairing vino with classic southern dishes, I had no intention of making them France specific. But as I reviewed my brainstorming chicken scratch, I was surprised to see that every single glass was from the land of the Louvre, and try as I might, I could not dream up a better pairing. So as crazy as it sounds, it seems the hills of the French countryside might in fact have something in common with the sticks and hollers of Appalachia.
When I was thinking up my favorite country dishes, naturally I started with my absolute favorite breakfast staple- gravy and biscuits. My granny used to bake drop biscuits called “cat heads” because they were, you guessed it, as big as a cat’s head. They weren’t the fluffy, golden and perfectly symmetrical buttermilk versions most of the rest of the world is used to, but there was pure deliciousness in every lumpy bite; particularly when smothered with her famous sausage gravy. Fried and crumbled in her biggest skillet, the woman never measured anything, just using pure instinct and years of experience to add the perfect amounts of whole milk, flour and seasonings to the ample pool of grease. As I pondered what wine could possibly hold up to this hearty concoction that seems to be all over the board and typically consumed early in the day, only 1 answer came to mind- classic Champagne. I’m a firm believer that most problems can be solved with bubbles, and if you’re ever in a predicament where you need a wine that will play off a little bit of everything, it’s a great go-to. Champagne in particular has a more yeasty flavor than other sparkling wines, making it a great match for biscuits and gravy. While it offers a creamy nuttiness, it’s still light enough to not be extra weight on an already heavy meal. Remember, all sparkling wine is commonly referred to as Champagne incorrectly, but TRUE Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. Try to get one that has been aged for a couple years, but if you’re ballin on a budget, there are some terrific Non-Vintage (NV) options out there that won’t break the bank.
For the next course, there’s no way I could cultivate a list of home cooked cuisine without mentioning soup beans and corn bread. There’s hardly another scent in this world that can make me go as wild as a big pot of simmering pintos on a stovetop with a cast iron skillet full of cornbread in the oven below. You can eat them however you want, but my preferred method is to ladle a giant spoonful of beans over a hunk of crumbled cornbread and top it with a couple dashes of Texas Pete. On a cold winter day, nothing will warm your bones better, I assure you. But what sort of wine would be the perfect complement to such a simple but filling concoction? My mind immediately traveled to Burgundy. French pinot has an earthiness that plays well with the beans, while still having just enough structure to stand up to the added texture of being cooked in pig fat. Aim for a nice Cote de Nuit Village wine for a full-bodied Burgundy experience without the hefty price tag of the well-known Grand Cru vineyards.
For suppertime in the south, I had 3 staples immediately come to mind and they all deserved an honorable mention and pairing suggestion. I felt it was only fair to give you a seafood, a white meat and a red meat option, depending on your mood. For the fish dish, there was no way I could avoid discussing shrimp and grits. This savory blending of seafood and breakfast carbs for dinner is the meal that changed my mind about crustaceans as a teenager, and the addition of spicy andouille sausage is the perfect way to round out this deliciousness. The only way it could be any better is with a big glass of Sancerre. While most would think that sauvignon blanc would be far too citrusy or delicate for the a meal this robust, this French version of the grape is actually quite versatile and is a fabulous complement to more savory flavors. It still holds the characteristic green, white and yellow fruit profiles, but has a salinity that creates perfect balance to full flavors.
If you’re in the mood for something with feathers, how about pairing a glass of French chardonnay with a big bowl of chicken and dumplings? A white Burgundy is a great option for this one-pot meal. Opt for a Cote de Beaune over Chablis, as these tend to be oaked, giving them more of the creaminess to play off the texture of the dumplings. I feel that Chablis being unoaked would be too light and fruity for a dish this savory.
Finally if you’re craving something carnivorous, let’s go read all the way with a pan full of meat loaf and a bottle of Bordeaux. This classic red blend would not only go great with a thick slice of loaf straight out of the oven, but would also be the perfect way to wash down a leftover meatloaf sandwich on white bread. Bordeaux, particularly styles from the Left Bank which contain more cabernet sauvignon, have delicious, grippy tannins that help balance out the fattiness of the red meat. You could also add a splash of this vino to jazz up your standard ketchup based glaze!
If there is 1 thing I could hammer home to everyone I know, it would be “don’t be afraid of wine!” All these things sounds so fancy and complicated when in reality, most wines can be quite versatile. Don’t be scared to match your favorite comfort foods with grapes from far-away lands that are a little hard to pronounce. They always say opposites attract, and when it comes to food and wine, that couldn’t be more true!