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Pairing Southern staples: Which wines pair with Southern salads?

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Chicken salad with grapes and walnuts


Pairing Southern staples: Which wines pair with Southern salads?

Let’s face it, Southern salads don’t often get much love when it comes to wine pairings. Perhaps their humble nature leads us to neglect pairing these salads with fine wines. Indeed, they’re frequently served in more casual settings, so the very idea of a wine pairing my not be at the front of most people’s minds. It’s time for that to change.

Chilled salads in various incarnations are a part of the Southern culinary canon, so let’s celebrate a few of them alongside some very unique wine selections.

Chicken Salad: Buttery and rich whites
As part of a light lunch or afternoon tea, classic chicken salad begs for a rich, chilled white wine. From that point, your paring options vary by the assertiveness of the ingredients in the salad. A simple variation containing only mayonnaise, celery and pecans begs for the creamy, buttery notes of a New World chardonnay. Those produced in California tend to undergo more malolactic fermentation than their French cousins, taking on more of that creamy, buttery and oaky flavor we associate with chardonnay and making them more appropriate with this style of chicken salad.

Let’s say, however, that you favor chicken salads that are a little more gussied up, such as those spiced with curry powder. Wines made predominantly from viognier or roussanne grapes are perfectly suited to spices and they also carry enough richness to match the mayonnaise. These wines are tradionally made in the Rhône valley, but Sonoma and Central Coast wines offer bold flavor at a good value. Or perhaps your chicken salad eschews curry power and more closely resembles Waldorf salad with additions of apple, grapes and walnuts; in that case, look towards wines with only a trace amount of sugar, such as gewürztraminer. A gewürz is a truly unique pairing with Waldorf-style chicken salad — its fruit-forward flavor and low levels of acidity can handle both the richness of the mayonnaise and the sweetness of the apples and grapes.

Suggested Wine Selections
2014 Stuhlmuller Vineyards Chardonnay, Alexander Valley, California
2015 Cass Roussanne, Paso Robles, California
2015 Hugel and Fils Gewürztraminer, Alsace, France

Get the recipe for Southern Kitchen's chicken salad

Cucumber-Onion Salad: Tart goes with tart
A common side dish at picnics and potlucks, this simple salad typically consists of cucumbers, onions, a dressing heavily spiked with apple cider vinegar, and a fresh herb, such as parsley or dill. Since the vinegar can take over the flavor profile of the salad, pairing a tart wine with a tart salad is your best bet and sauvignon blanc checks that box. Plus, fresh vegetables and herbs have a great affinity for this grape. Sav blancs from from Australia, New Zealand or France’s Loire Valley are all good choices. (If you're shopping French, look for wines from the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume villages.)

But what if the cucumber-onion salad contains tomatoes? Traditionally, tomatoes, onions and vinegar are three of the most difficult ingredients to pair with wine; putting all three in the same dish may make for a daunting drink menu. There's no need to worry, though — say hello (or bonjour, as it were) to Picpoul de Pinet. Also native to the Loire Valley, the wine's namesake grape “Picpoul” roughly translates to “stinging lip,” and it is naturally sharp and acidic. These wines, therefore, play well with myriad strong flavors, such as tomatoes. Pairing the wine with the acid in the fruit and vinegar will bring out more of the fruit flavors in the wine.

Suggested Wine Selections
2015 Matua Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
2015 Domaine Girard Sancerre La Garenne, France
2016 Cave de Pomerols HB Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Get the recipe for Southern Kitchen's tomato salad

Ambrosia: Bubbly all the way
Oh, ambrosia. With its acidic fruit packed in syrup, creamy whipped topping (or mayonnaise dressing), sweet marshmallows and shaved coconut, this Southern salad delivers some tricky elements to match with wine. The good news is that two very different pairing options exist for this polarizing, yet classic, dish. One of the easiest ways to brighten up an often cloyingly sweet dish is with the use of bubbles. First, a slightly sweet cava or prosecco adds effervescence, which is particularly nice with oranges. Our preference is for a cava over prosecco, as the yeasty notes in the Spanish wine seem to have a stronger affinity for both the coconut and the creamy dressing. Another option is the bubbly, but much sweeter Moscato d’Asti. Unlike a fully sparkling Asti Spumante, Moscato d’Asti offers a slight fizz and a lower alcohol content. This wine can successfully pair with nearly any ingredient found in ambrosia — citrus, pineapple, coconut, whipped cream — yet still allow the wine’s character to shine through. 

Suggested Wine Selections:
NV Perelada Brut Reserva Cava, Penedes, Spain
2015 Vietti Cascinetta Moscato d’Asti, Piemonte, Italy

Get the recipe for Southern Kitchen's ambrosia salad

Author image

Chef Jeffrey Gardner is a native of Natchez, Miss., and a graduate of Millsaps College and Johnson & Wales University. He lives in Atlanta and has served as sous chef for popular restaurants South City Kitchen Midtown and Alma Cocina. In 2013 he became executive chef for East Cobb restaurant Common Quarter and was named one of ten “Next Generation of Chefs to Watch” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He has appeared on TV shows including Food Network’s Chopped and Cooking Channel’s How to Live to 100, and also filmed a series of healthy cooking videos with retired pro wrestler and fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife Wendy, watching game shows and “spending all his money on Bruce Springsteen concerts.”