In Spain, a lot of meal pairings fit the “grows together, goes together” mode, pairing foods and wines from the same regions: shellfish and Albariño, for example, or heartland chorizo and Rioja. In the United States, many of the most popular foods are not associated with particular regions; some, like pizza and hot dogs, did not even originate here. So these dishes don’t call for an American wine, and in many cases pair beautifully with Spanish wines.
We asked three restaurant experts — Doug Frost, David Disney and Andy Myers — which Iberian wines they would match up best with classic American food. Their responses:
Hamburgers: “Here’s what’s great about burgers: they go with anything,” said Frost, the only American who has achieved both Master of Wine (MW) and Master Sommelier (MS) status. “Seriously; red, white, rosado, whatever. So why not a Navarra Rosado (from the Garnacha grape) or you could even apply a barrel-aged Rioja Blanco Reserva, and the burger could lap that up, too. I know it sounds like blasphemy, but what rules should apply to burgers? None.”
Myers, another MS who is the wine director of star chef Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup operation, went the red-wine route: “I love Mencia from Bierzo. Juicy red fruits, elevated acid and crunchy minerality. It's a delightfully mouthwatering combo.”
Hot dogs: “Some years ago,” Frost, said, “the Rioja campaign asked me to take a pic-ture in a famous New York kitchen with Rioja. I agreed on the condition that we would take another picture afterwards, outside at the hot-dog stand. A good old New Yawk dog with the works and a glass of solid Rioja red crianza will set that dog straight.”
Sloppy Joes: Disney, whose extensive Chicago restaurant career includes a recent stint at the Spanish-themed Solero, said he would “probably lean towards a nice Tempranillo from Navarra” for this sandwich made with ground beef, onions, tomato sauce and spices. “Preferably a red that has seen little to no wood. The fruitiness from this wine blends nicely with the juicy and savory aspects from the meat and spices.”
BLTs (Bacon/Lettuce/Tomato Sandwich): Frost again offered up several options. “Let’s see: toast, burnt flavors, need fruit. Bacon, need richness. Tomato, need a wine with some acidity to match up that. Lettuce, who cares? A nice young Montsant or Priorat would be fine, but you could just as easily have Calatayud or Cariñena or myriad other friendly, fruity reds from Spain that are cherry-forward, vanillin and dill-laden with American oak and fun to drink.”
Grilled Cheese: Depends on the cheese, Disney noted. “If you were to use a sweeter cheese like a Manchego, something drier would work well, perhaps a nice medium- to full-bodied Tempranillo from Rioja. Traditionally I believe most people use some form of cheddar for grilled cheeses. In this case I would steer them more towards something with high acidity to cut through the sharpness of the cheddar. Perhaps an Albariño from Rias Baixas or maybe a Garnacha Blanca.”
Philly Cheesesteak: "I'd drink crazy old Rioja,” Myers said. “[Something like] Castillo Ygay from the 1970s or ’80s. All that dried, sour fruit, the secondaries of leather and citrus rind with the dill and muted wood spices would make a ridiculous flavor marriage with the greasy, cheesy, onion-filled joy that is a great Philly Cheesesteak.”
Turkey & Dressing: Most associated with the American holiday of Thanksgiving, this combination requires lighter wines, Frost said. “Turkey needs fruit without tannin. Old Rioja doesn't work; the tannins are reduced, but so is the fruit. You could do worse than a Mencia from Bierzo [with] its fruitiness and savoriness. If you’re having a white wine, why not stick to northwest Spain and go with a Godello from Valdeorras? Those wines have weight and crispness, [plus] green and yellow pear.”
Fried Chicken: Bubble up, Disney advised. “Like any delicious dish that consists of battered and fried pieces of meat, there is no better pairing than sparkling wine. A beautiful acidic Cava would be perfect for this. The acidity would be able to cut through the grease nicely to keep the palate crisp and clean and keep you wanting more and more. If sparkling wine is not your thing, then a dry fino or manzanilla [sherry] might be more to your liking.”
Shrimp Cocktail: “I would lean towards a Verdejo from Rueda,” Disney said. “It's soft enough that the sweetness from the shrimp can still come through, but has enough body that it doesn't get lost. It holds up nicely against the acidity from the cocktail sauce as well.”
Crabcakes: This one’s easy — sort of — according to Frost. “Albariño can be fruity, or it can be lean and mineral-rich. Pick one of the latter, dependent upon whatever sauce is on the crabcakes. The barely visible, salty character of Albariño will be fun as hell with those crabcakes, hopefully from very fresh crab. Sign me up for that.”
Clam Chowder: Disney said he generally “would lean towards a buttery California Chardonnay to complement the creaminess of a clam chowder. I believe the Spanish counterpart to this would be a creamy, nutty Viura from Rioja.”
Pizza: No multiple options here for Frost: “Get a slice of pepperoni, hold it in one hand and then, with the other hand, drink a bottle of vibrantly fruity Tempranillo from Toro. Hopefully, something expensive and wasteful. That’s living!”
Meatloaf: Again, there is just one perfect option, Disney maintained. “A beautiful Mo-nastrell,” he said. “The earthy, gamey notes with a soft red-fruit undertone go well with this dish.”
Nachos: This depends on the components in the dish, Disney said. “If it is a meat-heavy style, I would lean towards a Garnacha for pork or a Tempranillo for beef. Both of these wines do a great job of really enhancing the flavor of the meat. If you prefer a very spicy version, then a sweeter red from Jumilla should pair nicely. Sweet and spicy are always a beautiful combination, and the tannins from the wine help dissolve the capsicum so the burning doesn't take over and you don't lose the flavor from the spices. Finally, if your nachos are very citrus-forward with a lot of lime, than a nice, crisp Verdejo should pair perfectly.”
Barbecue: This also comes in many styles. Even in Frost’s hometown of Kansas City, a barbecue epicenter, different renditions call for different wines. “For pulled pork, all I need is some ripe fruit and moderate tannins and body, so just about any Tempranillo will do,” he said. “I think it would be ideal to have a fruity crianza or cosecha from Rioja, or even the same style of red from Ribera del Duero.
“Smoked ribs are a lot more challenging: some ribs are a bit sweet, some are spicy. The spicy kind needs a lot of fruit; I’d start out with a less expensive Montsant or Priorat. They have fruit for days, but not too over-the-top with tannin. For the sweeter-styled ribs, you could blow people’s minds with a Fondillon, a late-harvest, dried-grape style of red from southeastern Spain.”
Myers is a fan of the more vinegary offerings from the Southeast. "I'm a huge fan of Carolina BBQ with its tangy style, and I find this works really well with refreshing Albariños. I get giddy when the tart and salty wine meets delicious piggy goodness. If you prefer to go red here, you can't go wrong with a juicy Priorat. Big, bold and spicy wine with tart, juicy, meaty love is pretty awesome.”
Actually, “pretty awesome” could be used to describe all of these trans-Atlantic pairings.