“A lot of people are still really surprised that you can pair Champagne with fried foods,” Jen Pelka, founder and CEO of The Riddler, a hugely successful Champagne bar with locations in San Francisco and New York, says. “The way I like to relay it is, ‘If you think about anything you like to drink beer with, generally Champagne is a really good match.’”
Much like Milwaukee’s Miller High Life, “the Champagne of beers,” France’s most famous, luxurious sparkling wine is light and bright. While the latter has bracing acidity, both drinks excite the palate with lively effervescence and are at their most delicious plucked straight out of an ice bucket.
When paired with foods like French fries and fried chicken, these characteristics cut through the crispy exterior and cleanse the palate of (delicious) lingering grease.
Basically, they go “really, really, really well” together, Pelka says.
Pelka is by no means the only hospitality industry pro who waxes lyrical about this pairing. Champagne and fried chicken, in particular, has established itself on America’s dining landscape.
In 2014, Birds & Bubbles, a restaurant entirely dedicated to the pairing, opened in New York’s Lower East Side. (The spot has since closed because of a rent dispute.) Chicago, meanwhile, hosts an annual Fried Chicken & Champagne Fest every February, while an 18-foot-long Fried & Fizzy food truck slings deep-fried poultry and pricey French fizz on the streets of Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Fried chicken and Champagne is a pretty common pairing in the South,” says Matt Tornabene, president of New York-based wine retailer and storage business, Manhattan Wine Company. The 41-year-old, who grew up in the South, says he probably first tasted the combo in Charleston, S.C., around the time he enjoyed his first legal sip of alcohol.
After moving to New York in 2002, and setting up his wine retail business in 2006, Tornabene called upon his southern roots and hosted the company’s first annual fried chicken and Champagne dinner in 2011. The event served as an opportunity to gain more interest in grower Champagnes, which were a much harder sell at the time, he says, adding, “It started in a tiny little restaurant in the West Village. It was just 15 or 20 of us and some of our import partners.”
But now, with the booming popularity of grower Champagnes in major cities like New York, and fried chicken and Champagne a well-established pairing, the event has grown every year and barely meets the public demand. Last year’s sellout event hosted 125 people, with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group cooking up the fried chicken. The annual dinner has become so popular, in fact, that Tornabene faces an internal battle over whether to host it or not.
“We tend to hold back a lot of really allocated [grower Champagnes],” he says. “Those are wines we’re getting bottles of, not cases.” If he kept them for his store, the wines would sell “as soon as we put them on the shelf,” he says, and his margins would likely be a lot higher.
American diners and wine lovers are clearly convinced, but chicken is by no means the only fried food that pairs with Champagne, nor are all styles of Champagne suited to every type of fried food. So VinePair gained insight from industry pros like Pelka and Tornabene to find the best Champagnes to pair with all types of fried food. Here are their favorites.
Fried Chicken & Blanc de Blancs
For Pelka, selecting which Champagne to pair with fried chicken depends entirely on how the dish is being served. She bases her Champagne selection on finding contrasts with the seasoning of the chicken, rather than building upon the dish with a like-for-like profile. (Both are well-established methods for pairing food and wine.)
“If you’re going with something like a spicy Korean fried chicken, you want a Champagne with a higher level of dosage,” she says. (Anything between a high-dosage dry Champagne and a demi-sec is ideal.) This pairing relies on the same principles sommeliers use when pairing off-dry Rieslings with Indian and Thai cuisines, she says, with the residual sugar of the wine canceling out the dish’s spice.
“But if you’re going for the classic Popeye’s fried chicken, I think you could go with something with very high acid, because it cuts through the fat and that crazy crunch of the exterior,” Pelka says.
Tornabene agrees, and says that while they pour a range of different styles of Champagne during the portfolio tasting at his dinners, which takes place before the fried chicken is served, they exclusively serve (high-acid) blanc de blancs Champagnes with the meal.
“Crisp, Côte des Blancs Chardonnay [Champagne] tends to be our favorite pairing,” he says.
French Fries & Rich, Toasty Blends
In 2018, tapping into the growing high-low pairing trend, Moët & Chandon’s wine quality and communication manager, Marie-Christine Osselin, suggested fries are the perfect foil for Champagne’s zesty fruit notes and lively bubbles.
At Effervescence, a New Orleans sparkling wine bar located in the city’s French Quarter, owner Crystal Hinds also highlights Champagne and fries as one of her favorite pairings.
The bar’s kitchen team hand-cuts the fries every day, and elevates the high-low pairing by serving them with either roasted garlic aioli or freshly grated Burgundy black truffle (Hinds’ preference). She points to “buttery and rich” Champagnes as the ideal match for this dish. “A full-bodied Champagne [that has a] toasty finish goes great with fries,” Hinds says.
In this case, because the fries are much thinner and not as greasy as fried chicken, the food doesn’t require as much acidity. Instead, the fried potatoes act as a blank canvas upon which the richness of the wine can shine. But the bar’s manager, Edouard Majoie, a French national from Champagne, says blanc de blancs styles also work, as long as the acidic fruit notes of the wine are balanced by toasty, baked bread notes.
Potato Chips & Chardonnay-Driven Blends
Pairing potato chips with Champagne is very similar to fries, though the crunchier bite and higher levels of salt make them even more receptive to the racy acidity of blanc de blancs Champagnes.
Increasingly, Champagne bars such as Effervescence and New York’s Air’s Champagne Parlor use potato chips as a serving vessel for caviar. In this scenario, the salty pop of the fish eggs should be the focus of the pairing, presenting the perfect opportunity for a mineral-rich, Chardonnay-driven blend that’s also fruity and highly acidic.
Popcorn & Aged Champagne
While not cooked in the same way as other foods on this list, popcorn requires high heat and a lot of fat during cooking, which is essentially the same principle as deep-fat frying. At The Riddler, Pelka’s kitchen staff uses brown butter to add an “unctuous characteristic” to their complimentary popcorn.
Despite its relative simplicity, popcorn offers a range of exciting pairing opportunities that are not possible with other high-low combos. “Fried foods generally don’t go with anything that’s got tons of lees contact or a lot of [bottle] age,” she says. “[But] popcorn is great with aged Champagne, where you really, really want to show off the wine.”