Very few tings can stimulate your palate more than succulent stuffed chicken breasts with a drizzle of rich gravy. But there are some who will never be able to experience the crowning touch, because they don’t know what wines go well with chicken. This question has caused many a cook to fret, but there is really no need to. We have been making wine to go with food for over 5000 years, and with a few exceptions, most wines are OK with most foods. But what if you want to go that one step further, and find the perfect taste combinations to bring out the full potential of your dining experience?
To do this, it is necessary to understand a little about how our sense of taste and smell work. What we interpret as ‘taste’ actually involves many sensory stimuli, including olfactory, visual, sight, and even hearing. They all work together. This is why better restaurants go to the trouble of selecting a particular décor, music and food presentation. Proper dining is a complete sensory experience, and the proper wine can make, or break it.
The actual sense of taste is pretty simple. You have 4 kinds of taste buds, each sensitized to a particular type of stimuli. They are Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Sweet. Each type is concentrated on a different part of your tongue. The rearmost ¼ is made up of taste buds sensitized to Bitter. The next ¼ forward is Sour. In front of that, we have Salty, and the first 1/4 to the tip of the tongue is Sweet. All food tastes are just varying combinations of these 4 qualities. Chicken, depending on how it is prepared, is mostly Sweet, and Salty. There is a secondary component called ‘mouthfeel’, that has to do with texture and viscosity, but this does not involve the taste buds. Chicken would be interpreted as firm, and fibrous. Another factor is temperature, which is also sensed in the mouth, and plays an important role in how all these other characteristics come together to create the complete experience. Something that is considered ‘Full-Tasting’ is such because it stimulates all of these senses.
Many people don’t realize it, but the majority of what you interpret as ‘taste’ actually involves your sense of smell. While the tongue can only sense 4 qualities, your nose is a marvel of chemical-detection engineering. We may not be bloodhounds, but the average human nose can detect concentrations as little as one part to several billion parts of air. This is done with the use of around 5 or 6 million olfactory receptors, located high in the nasal passages. By comparison, rabbits have over 100 million of these receptors, and dogs over 500 million. Human olfactory receptors are capable of detecting, and interpreting thousands of odors. Your nose is actually more relevant to your sense of taste than your tongue. This is why people who have colds often complain that food has no taste, or it all tastes the same.
Now that we understand how things work, we can go about the task of selecting the wine that will provide the maximum taste experience. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and discover what wines go well with chicken. A good place to start is to learn the few basic ‘Rules-Of-The-Road’.
- Red wine with red meats, and white wine with poultry, seafood and other meats. This rather basic, and there are many exceptions, but it holds true a lot of the time.
- Don’t worry too much about the exceptions. Chicken is a white meat, but there are many spicy chicken dishes that go very well with a light, fruity red, or blush.
- Like matches like. Try to select a wine who’s characteristic closely match the characteristics of your entrée. If your entrée is light, and delecate, you might want something like a light, slightly sweet Chablis. For very spicy chicken. You may want to go with a full-bodied dry California Chardonay, or Rhine, or maybe even a rose.
- Occasionally, opposites attract. There are times when opposing tastes can create a new sensation. It has a lot to do with what you are looking for as the end result. There are rare times when a particular chicken dish might be pleasantly surprised by the contrast of a bold red, such as a good Sangria or Merlot. This is especially true of some Mexican Chicken entrees.
The ultimate rule is to drink what you like. Everyone is different, and it is your meal. You are entitled to enjoy it as you want.
One caution: There is a difference between ‘spicy’, and just plain ‘hot’. There are a few extra hot dishes, like strong curries, where there is enough capsicum from peppers and other spices to react unpleasantly with the tannins and phenolics in wines. They tend to irritate the sense of taste and smell, rather than complement them. These dishes are best left to more ‘rustic’ beverages like beer, tea, soda, etc…
Another good idea is to try to match the style of wine to the style of cuisine you are serving, such as Italian wines with Italian cuisine, French wines with French cuisine, and so on. It is not critical, but it is a nice extra touch, where possible.
Here are a few suggestions for your chicken entrees. These are just my opinion, and many may disagree, but it will give you a starting base. For delicate dishes where the main overtones are floral, or fruity, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts pan braised in herbed butter, or stuffed breast, try a good Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc), Chablis, Chenin Blanc, or a light Riesling. For spicier dishes such as Sticky Chicken, Gumbo, Jambalaya, Satillo Pollo con Arroz, Monterrey Chicken, most Oriental dishes, try a good dry Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Rhine, Merlot, White Zinfandel, or Pinot Noir. For salads with chicken, such as Oriental Chicken Salad, Cobb Salad, Crispy Chicken Chefs Salads, etc…stick with very light, dry, and crisp wines like Chablis, so that they won’t have to fight with the Salad Dressings for your attention.
Again, these are just basic guidelines based on my decades of culinary experience. Your tastes may differ. Only experience can tell you for sure what wines go well with chicken.