I've been talking about it for a good month. Julia was pushing for it. People thought I wouldn't do it, or couldn't do it, even shouldn't do it. I wasn't all that sure myself, but this July 4th, with the help and indulgence of some good people and their Independence day backyard party, we lined up five white wines and a sixteen piece family meal of mild Popeye's fried chicken in a blind tasting for the title of "this wine goes well with fried chicken."
Where do you even begin to determine what wine goes best with fried chicken? (For the record, we decided by fiat that Popeyes is the best fried chicken commercially available, thus avoiding a much more complex and arduous tasting process.) The guys working in liquor stores had vague answers, sometimes recommending beer instead or subtly suggesting the whole project was insane. The internets, usually a font of complete (and completely unreliable) information, came up on the short side, with just one helpful review from wine review online. The twitterati came through with some ideas, @gracepiper suggesting, "I'd go for a crisp acidic white to cut through the fat," and @popeyeschicken shilling ,"Cakebread Chardonnay goes great with mild! A South African Shiraz really works well with the spicy. Bon-appe-fide!" @garyvee was silent on the matter, claiming to be on a plane en route to Bordeaux. What-ever. Searching on cork'd was similarly unhelpful. I can't help thinking the info is in there, but somehow trapped behind a lousy search system
I picked up five wines, some from recommendations, some from guesswork, and bagged them in random order. Here are the notes, in the order tasted with white meat or dark, but remember that nobody knew what they were tasting at the time.
#1: Vernaccia di San Gimignano Tenuta le Calcinaie 2007
We were crushed when the bag came off. We really like Vernaccia. We love Tuscany. And it's DOCG and biodynamic, too! But this one was just blah. Maybe too young, maybe not quite cold enough, it just wasn't crisp or bright enough for Popeyes salty crispy gamy greasy goodness. The fact that it had a slight nose of grass was ironic, since that's where much of it ended up. A bummer at $16.
#2: La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Luberon 2007
Generally acknowledged to be superior to #1, this Rhone white called "the old farm" had a not one but two chickens on the label but still didn't cut the grease enough to make it a happy match. There was some evidence of oak amongst the generally fruity flavors, but we were wishing for more crispness. Not too shabby for $9 but save it for more delicately prepared chickens.
#3: Casal Garcia Vinho Verde (NV)
One guest identified this one immediately, citing the slight fizz and bright citrusy nature. We agreed at once that the necessary acid was present to put up with popeyes grease and salt. Some even opined that this wine might have applications outside the fried chicken world. Grapefruit, lime, and slight mineral notes made some wonder if this was a Sauvignon Blanc. Halfway through the flight, this Portuguese $5 bottle was in the lead.
#4: Oyster Bay 2007 Sauvignon Blanc
I think if the wines were known in advance, the smart money would have been on this Marlborough NZ white. And maybe if it didn't have to follow the Portuguese it would have fared better. A typical (which is very good) but unexceptional example of its kind, Oyster Bay delivered a dry and fruity experience that was firmly ok with the chicken, especially the white meat. A solid performer at $12.
#5: Cakebread Cellars 2005 Chardonnay
It was obvious from the first sip that this wine was not like the others. "Napa chardonnay!" some cried. "It's like licking a barrel" said others. Oak, vanilla, butter and all the hallmarks of a mature California Chardonnay were nicely balanced. Even guests who were disgusted at the very idea of tasting wine with fried chicken grudgingly sampled this one. It was Popeyes own recommendation, but did it match up with the chicken? The majority said no, not so much, the buttery nature didn't jibe with the fried chicken. A few dissenters preferred it, though. At $46, you'd better be sure.
At least for this round, we declare Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco the best wine partner for Popeyes mild fried chicken. There's plenty of room at our summer table for humble tasty treats.
So, what have we learned here? Well, first and foremost, we learned that further testing will be necessary. Without even expanding our research to spicy chicken or red or rose wines, we notably omitted Champagne, Pinot Grigio, and Gruner Veltliner, three very likely candidates for good fried chicken matches.
We also learned that price and conventional measures of wine quality don't always mean as much as they're cracked up to, especially when making non-traditional pairings. In terms of all the various advice we received, I have to hand it to @gracepiper of Fearless Cooking for being most prescient even without recommending a particular wine.
Humble thanks also to the Josephine ave crew for putting up with this affront to their gourmet sensibilities. Several more blog posts could - and should - be written to celebrate the lamb burgers, hummus, smoked chicken salad, trifle and cupcakes and other amazing treats on offer.