3 Rules for Wine Pairing With Chili: Sommelier Secrets

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Red chili in a white square bowl on a table

Chili — one of the most popular dishes around the world — has become an important component of the current culinary lexicon. The popularity of chili is due to its adaptability with whatever ingredients you may have on hand in your kitchen. Essentially, you can make a good chili by combining your protein — like chicken, turkey, ground beef, or a combination of these — with vegetables — like sweet potato, corn, and beans. For a vegetarian version, you can use meat substitutes or skip the meat altogether.

When thinking of a hearty bowl of chili, the first dish that comes to your mind might be chili con carne — which literally translates to chili with meat. But, there are many chili types you've probably never even heard of, such as Cincinnati's famed Skyline chili (served on top of spaghetti with a pile of melted cheese) or Springfield chili (mostly meat, beans and spices - no tomatoes). Per the International Chili Society, all chili can be broadly divided into four categories:

  1. Traditional red
  2. Chili verde
  3. Homestyle chili
  4. Veggie chili

The Spicy History of Chili

The history of chili is peppered with myths and legends. One such legend suggests that immigrants from the Canary Islands brought a recipe for chili with them when they arrived in San Antonio, Texas in the early 1700s. After that, chili became a mainstay in San Antonia thanks to a group of women known as "chili queens." By the 1880s, "bowls o' red" were being served at chili stands in Military Plaza, and the popularity of chili con carne began to spread.

As the 1930s arrived, San Antonia's outdoor chili stands had become a fixture on the streets. However, by the early 1940s, all the outdoor chili stands in San Antonia had been shut down by the local government citing sanitary reasons. Yet, chili came to be recognized as the dish that gave rise to Tex-Mex cuisine, and it was declared as the state dish of Texas in 1977.

Chili has gone through several evolutions since. As a result, you may find several versions of this dish all over the world — each with its own spin on the original recipe. For example, Texas chili is different from the conventional chili in that it doesn't include any beans or vegetables. Texans are very particular about what constitutes a true, authentic Texas chili dish — no vegetables except for boiled, peeled, chopped chili peppers.

What Wine to Drink With Chili

A good chili will have a little acidity, a little sweetness, and a whole lot of depth. This is why chili is considered one of the most perfect meals to pair with wine.

When considering what wine to drink alongside it, you might want to look out for whether the wine you've selected complements the chili's characteristics — some wines are simply too delicate to hold up to the more assertive flavors of chili, so you want something that's bold enough not to be overwhelmed.

Say you want to enjoy a fine wine with a meaty chili con carne, then you should go for full-bodied, tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, or Bordeaux. On the other hand, if your chili is vegetarian or has poultry as the protein, try pairing it with lighter reds like Pinot Noir.

It's important to moderate the heat or spiciness when you want to find a wine that pairs well with your bowl of chili — a mild-to-medium spicy chili will pair well with almost any type of red or white wine, but with very spicy chili, you won't be able to relish the flavor of any kind of wine.

Rules of Wine Pairing With Chili

Experimentation is key to finding the best wine parings for the kinds of chili you enjoy. As you experiment, here are three rules that most sommeliers abide by when they recommend wine pairings to their customers. 

The Wine Should Be More Acidic Than the Food

Tomatoes are used as the base in most of the traditional chilis, which make the dish acidic, so the wine you pair with such a chili should be more acidic than the chili so as to balance out the flavors. In other words, the best wines to pair with tomato-heavy chili are ones that have strong acidity with a deep, rich flavor. 

Another good rule of thumb to follow here is to pick wines that would work well with the ingredients you use in your chili. For instance, if your chili is beefy and heavy on red peppers, a full-bodied red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot would be the best choice, but if your chili includes lighter ingredients like chicken and white beans, look for a white wine with bright acidity like Pinot Gris or Chardonnay.

The Wine Should Complement the Flavors of the Food

Chili is a very complex dish combining flavors of spices like cumin and garlic with the sweetness of tomatoes or peppers. The dish, therefore, has so many different flavor notes, which can be paired and enhanced with several different wine pairings.

If your chili isn't spicy, feel free to pair it with a wine that's light and fruity — the milder taste of a white or a rosé will complement the dish beautifully. If the chili is spicy, try a wine with a bit of sweetness, like an off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc.

The Wine Should the Same Flavor Intensity As the Food

Chili is one of those foods that can really stand up to wine, but it also has the potential to be a bit overwhelming for your palate. Most sommeliers will tell you that white wines pair best with light-intensity meats, while red wines work best with dark-intensity meats. Though this is true in most cases, it's not a hard and fast rule.

Some of the light-intensity meats may have a strong flavor that doesn't pair well with white wine. So, if you want to pair your chili with white wine, you'd want to go with something with a bit of oomph — Chardonnay's a good option here.

The Simplicity of Wine Pairing With Chili

In the end, there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to which wine goes best with chili. Yet, when you find the wine pairing that suits your taste the best, you'll experience your chili like never before — every bite, a new flavor, and every sip, a new texture. 

If you're looking for the right wine to enjoy with your next chili-inspired meal, JJ Buckley Fine Wines has a superb selection of fine wines you'll want to check out today!