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In Search of Winning Super Bowl Wines

When beer simply won't cut it for your game-day party

Laurie Woolever
Posted: January 31, 2007

We get it: For the majority of sports fans planning to hunker down with greasy, spicy, cheesy snacks in front of a flat-screen television this Sunday, beer is King. But are die-hard wine lovers supposed to forfeit the game simply because their beverage of choice is a less obvious foil to the wings, ribs, pizza and chili that define Super Bowl Sunday? The Wine Spectator Online editorial team says, "No."

Armed with notebooks, moist towelettes and a collective optimism that we'd later come to regret, we sat down recently to try and figure out which wine would make the best match with game-day food. We chose a handful of wines, based on their scores (minimum 87 points), their price (under $20) and their availability (at least 4,000 cases). Far be it from us to admit defeat, but we have to say it: Those who really care about the taste of their wine above all else should probably stick to peanuts.

THE FOOD (in order of spiciness):

  • Cheese pizza with tomato sauce—a classically doughy, New York-style pie with pasteurized mozzarella cheese
  • Pork ribs—coated in a sweet, lightly spicy barbecue sauce; characterized by darkly charred areas
  • Chicken wings—coated with a vigorous habanero pepper sauce
  • Beef and venison chili with black beans—a tomato-based stew with lots of heat, sweetness and spice

ROUND 1: NON-VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE

The food is piping hot and the day is young. We start with Champagne, for its relative similarity to beer, and because, for the moment, we are happy. The wine has a combination of fruitiness and crisp acidity that, according to assistant tasting coordinator Nick Suarez, makes the pizza's cheese seem to curdle in the mouth. "If you're the kind of person that salts and peppers and garlics your pizza," says associate editor Robert Taylor, his tone dripping with derision, "then you could probably make it work with Champagne." The wine fares better with the ribs, highlighting their gentle spice and cutting through their ample fat, but is hammered by the spiciness of both the wings ("Like a mouthful of broken glass," notes news editor Eric Arnold) and the chili.

Bottom line: Save your sparklers for another occasion. Or, if your team wins, spray them all over your living room during the victory celebration. (Note: those of you planning to actually spray your living rooms with Champagne should consult either plastic sheeting experts or divorce attorneys.)

ROUND TWO: WHITE WINES

  • Riesling, Rheingau, Germany 2005
  • Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley, Chile 2005
  • Sauvignon Blanc, Southwest France 2005

The food is starting to cool down, which, assistant managing editor Joe Meyerson notes, "is probably closer to the authentic Super Bowl experience, anyway." Among the whites, the Chardonnay is the clear winner, with nicely balanced fruit, acidity and a lightly smoky, toasted oak finish that allows it to stand up to the food, even the chili, without overpowering it. (Lone detractor Taylor finds the wine to be "gross" with the wings.) In second place is the Riesling, whose sweetness makes a nice foil for the pizza's cheese and the chili's heat (although managing editor Dana Nigro notes that, "Given the chili's intense heat, I would have gone with an even sweeter Riesling.") The Riesling does not do well with the char and sweetness of the barbecued meats, however, which become bitter in the face of the wine. The Sauvignon Blanc is an unqualified disaster. Its characteristically grassy quality amplifies the pizza's oregano seasoning to a near-comic degree, while completely disappearing when paired with the more strongly-flavored wings, ribs and chili.

Bottom line: You can't go wrong with a medium-bodied Chardonnay, but you can go way, way wrong with a Sauvignon Blanc.

ROUND THREE: RED WINES

  • Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2005
  • Cabernet-based blend, Mendoza, Argentina 2003
  • Shiraz-based blend, Victoria, Australia 2005
  • Ribera del Duero, Crianza, Spain 2003
  • Shiraz, Peñascal, Spain 2004

Things start out grim in the final round. Nigro sustains a slight injury after laughing with a mouth full of wine. Taylor, who is still feeling the effects of a weekend run-in with food poisoning, seriously considers dropping out of the game. Your author even briefly, deliriously calls out for beer, but is urged by her brave colleagues to shut up and soldier on.

The pizza is practically developing ice crystals; Arnold notes that the Ribera del Duero "just demonstrates how bad the pizza is when it's cold." Three overall crowd-pleasers emerge: The Aussie Shiraz blend, with its cherry, smoke and vanilla flavors, gets along well with each of the foods; the Spanish Shiraz is friendly to everything from the acidic tomato sauce on the pizza to the warm spice of the chili ("There's a reason why Shiraz is a great barbecue wine," says Arnold); and the Cab blend is actually improved through its interaction with the food. "It doesn't trample, and it doesn't get trampled," says Taylor, adding, "Of course, I have a fever and haven't been spitting nearly enough."

Bottom line: Pour a New World red and keep your pizza in a warm oven.

RECOMMENDED WINES

Wine Score Price
LEGARIS Ribera del Duero Crianza 2003 90 $16
A silky texture carries plum, tobacco, coffee and mineral flavors over ripe tannins in this balanced red. Berry and vanilla notes linger on the finish. Drink now through 2013. 23,000 cases made. —T.M.
 
BODEGAS NIETO SENETINER Don Nicanor Mendoza 2003 89 $15
Dark and polished, with black currant, fig and boysenberry fruit held together by coffee, bittersweet cocoa and loam notes. Long, rich finish. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. Drink now through 2008. 10,000 cases made. —J.M.
 
WATER WHEEL Memsie Red Bendigo 2005 89 $16
Bright and open-textured, with pretty currant and plum fruit at the core, hinting at coffee and pepper as the finish lingers. Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Drink now through 2010. 12,000 cases imported. —H.S.
 
CASA LAPOSTOLLE Chardonnay Casablanca Valley 2005 88 $12
A nice forward, juicy style, with pear, fig and toast flavors kept honest by ripe acidity. Drink now. 10,000 cases imported. —J.M.
 
HIJOS DE ANTONIO BARCELÓ Shiraz Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León Peñascal 2004 87 $7
Fresh and fruity. Cherry and blackberry flavors are bright and clean in this lively red, supported by vanilla and moderate tannins. Drink now through 2009. 10,000 cases made. —T.M.
 
AUGUST KESSELER Riesling QbA Rheingau R 2005 87 $11
Firm and off-dry, this white displays lemon and peach flavors on a juicy profile. Balanced, lingering nicely. Drink now through 2009. 15,000 cases made. —B.S.

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