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How to Pair Wine with Nachos

How to Pair Wine with Nachos

In the 1990s, America’s heartland was obsessed with nacho cheese—the golden-yellow, ooey-gooey dip you couldn’t wait to sink your tortilla chips and soft pretzel bites into. Though you couldn’t really call the plastic chip-and-dip platter at the local roller rink, sports game or movie theater “nachos” per se, so many of us cut our teeth on those nacho flavors that it became an unforgettable taste. It seems, too, that it’s back in full force—if nachos-centric restaurants like Vamos. Vamos in Santa Monica and fancy snacks like the crab and uni nachos at Empellón in New York City are any indicator. 

The ubiquitous dish has so seamlessly assimilated into American culture that many of us forget about its Mexican heritage. The dish was born in the 1940s, in a small town just across the Texas border called Piedras Negras, Coahuila. As the legend goes, a crew of U.S. military wives dropped in and maître d’ Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya couldn’t find the cook, so he hastily threw some fried chips, cheese and jalapeño together under the broiler. The addictive snack spread like wildfire across Texas, and the rest is happy hour history.

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Like most bar foods, nachos have been upgraded over the years, from simple renditions topped with cheese and chilis to brisket-crowned versions and even “totchos”—that’s tater tot nachos, for those unfamiliar with the lingo. In spite of the dish’s glow-up, it’s still far more common to wash nachos down with beer or a margarita rather than a nice glass of wine—a major mistake.

“A beer like Tecate might cleanse the palate and you don’t have to think about it, but for people who love wine and flavor, it’s so much more exciting to layer more flavor,” says Rebecca Phillips, co-owner and wine director of Los Angeles’s Vintage Wine + Eats and Buvette LA. “Wine can have a beginning, a middle and an end with a long finish, and with a beverage that’s so complex and so much on its own, to pair it with a dish like nachos, you’re really cranking the dial. You’ve elevated the whole situation—not because it’s fancy, but because of the additional flavor.”

She has a point. If we can dress up nachos with steak and nopales, why can’t we dial it up another level with a well-matched wine? We took to the pros to find out how to do it. Here are the best nacho and wine pairings, according to sommeliers.

Photo by Scott Suchman

The Best Wine for Classic Nachos: California Cabernet Franc

Classic nachos—the kind you might find in a sports bar or neighborhood pub—often come piled high with seasoned beef, black beans, queso, sour cream, jalapeños and other toppings. Phillips, who has been posting “Fast Food Fridays” wine pairings on her Instagram account for five years, says it requires a wine that can stand up to all “the salt, the spice, the fat, the acid, the heat.” Her favorite pairing is a just-as-multifaceted California Cabernet Franc, which often boasts notes of caramelized fruit, like red raspberry and ripe blueberry, as well as poblano pepper, jalapeno and “dusty basement vibes” from the pyrazine.

“The bigger fruit from the New World version can stand up to bold flavors like beef and beans,” Phillips says. “And the pepper from the wine matches the nachos’ cumin, chili powder and pickled jalapeños so beautifully.”

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Chilaquiles: Chenin Blanc or Baja Wines

Chilaquiles—a dish of tortilla chips topped with salsa, queso fresco and whatever other ingredients the maker desires—are basically super flavorful nachos crossed with enchiladas. Master of wine Martin Reyes owner of importer WineWise and co-founder of Wine Unify, loves to make his own and sometimes turns it into a layered lasagna-like dish packed with beans, forbidden rice, squash, carrots and his own homemade enchilada sauce. His favorite pairings for these bold flavors are light-hearted and aren’t overly serious, much like a good Chenin Blanc. Following the age-old locavore ethos of “what grows together, goes together,” Reyes looks for examples from Baja Mexico.

“It’s easy to fall back on European wines, because that’s the hegemony, but there is plenty of wine that pairs easily with Latinx and Caribbean foods,” Reyes says. 

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

Husch 2022 Chenin Blanc (Mendocino)

This juicy wine has a little extra spritz in conjunction with generous acidity that brings flavors to life. Notes of vibrant capsicum, cut grass, just-ripe pineapple, lime leaf, lemongrass and a sea-air salinity bring to mind a tropical island. Suggested pairings include Thai green curry, fresh crab cakes with mango salsa, or seafood ceviche. Best Buy. 92 Points  — S.B.

Total Wine

The Best Wine for Salsa Verde Nachos: Sauvignon Blanc or Orange Wines

Tomatillo-based salsas, like the avocado-infused version that Vilma Mazaite, general manager at California’s Donnachadh Family Wines, likes to make at home requires a wine that can stand up to the acidity and mild spice of the tomatillos. That’s why she reaches for Sauvignon Blanc to go alongside her “Baja Nachos,” which are also topped with shrimp cooked with fresh tomatoes, melted Oaxacan cheese, pickled onion and parsley. The crisp wine’s acid complements the sauce, as do its fresh herbal notes and fruity aromas. “Fruit helps bring out the sweetness of the sauce,” she says.

For a more adventurous matchup to those spicy, herbal flavors, Randy Clement, co-owner of L.A.’s Silverlake Wines and Vamos. Vamos., recommends an orange wine. It’s his go-to choice for the braised pork-topped chile verde nachos served at the Santa Monica restaurant. But which oranges?

“The oranger the better, the weirder the better and the more exciting the better,” Clement says. “The skin contact and oftentimes slight cloudiness add a wonderful savory element to the wines, and those elements juxtaposed with their oftentimes slight fruitiness and less-than-racy acidity make for a perfect pairing.” 

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The Best Wine for Seafood Nachos: Albariño or Sauvignon Blanc

Seafood nachos can take many forms. Though many versions call on various forms of shellfish—shrimp, mussels, scallops and beyond—one of the most decadent versions we’ve seen is the crab and uni nachos at Empellón. Noah Small, beverage director at the restaurant, often pairs the dish with sparklers and orange wines. But, if he had to reach for just one varietal or style of wine to match, it would be Albariño. The wine has become a classic seafood pairing because Albariño vines are often planted in soil rich with the remains of old seashells. 

“The expressions are bright and crackling with acidity, and those little hints of salinity really tie things together,” says Small. “Albariño is great for anything briny, so uni and oysters are perfect.”

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Spicy Beef and Cheese Nachos: Furmint

Spicy is the key word to consider when choosing a pairing for spicy beef and cheese nachos. For Thomas Dunn, general manager and sommelier at LittleMad, a Korean-inspired New American restaurant in New York City, the crisp acidity of a dry Furmint provides an ideal contrast. The varietal, which is best known in decadently sweet Tokaji dessert wines, goes particularly well with those big flavors and all the common toppings. 

“The Furmint cuts through the richness of the fats and bold flavors of a spicy, meaty nachos,” he says.

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Carnitas Nachos: Chardonnay or Riesling

Chris Benziger, vice president of Benziger Family Winery, can’t resist a succulent carnitas nachos, with the tender pork dripping the perfect amount of fat onto the chips. Given how rich and heavy it can be, he suggests seeking out wines with vibrant acidity and the bright aromas of tropical fruits. Off-dry German Rieslings and high-acid Chardonnays fit the bill. 

“A sip of Chardonnay brings a burst of freshness, cutting through the richness of the dish while harmonizing with its savory elements,” he says.

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Gochujang Chili-Cheese Nachos: Riesling

Up until recently, gochujang—an umami-rich fermented chili paste—was best known as a Korean cooking staple. Today, the sweet, savory and slightly spicy an international culinary superstar—even working its way into the canon of nacho toppings. Gochujang-anointed nachos are a favorite of Charles Gaeta, director of Dedalus Wine in Vermont.  

“With all that salty and fatty goodness, I am pulling for something with ripe fruit, high-flying acidity and a complementary touch of residual sugar,” he says—which means Riesling. The layers of cheese, spiced salsa and jalapeños and fresh herbs go particularly well with off-dry German Rieslings, powerful Alsatian Grand Crus with some age on them and slightly fizzy, unfiltered blends from Swabia. 

“In all these various forms, Riesling’s famed acid and sugar are a perfect foil to rich and spicy nachos,” says Gaeta. 

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Barbecue Chicken Nachos: Red Blends

Barbecue chicken makes just about everything better—nachos included. Jamie Benziger, head winemaker at Imagery Estate Winery (and niece of Chris), thinks the ideal wine pairing has to highlight the smoky flavors in the meat. To do so, she calls for a red blend. 

“With rich dark fruit flavors and subtle spice notes, the right red blend enhances the bold, smoky flavors of barbecue chicken nachos,” she says. 

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Wine Enthusiast recommends:

The Best Wine for Raw Tuna Nachos: Chilled Reds or Chardonnay

Technically tuna is a type of seafood, but tuna tartare- or poke-topped nachos deserve a different wine treatment than other seafood variations. That’s because they often feature Asian flavors—soy sauce, sesame oil and other ingredients—which can steer a pairing in a different direction.

T.J. Provenzano, beverage director and co-owner of New York City omakase spot Bar Miller, likes a contrasting pairing for the fatty elements—the rich aioli and the fish—in the soy- and sesame-marinated bluefin tuna tartare nachos served at the restaurant. He thinks the ideal foil is a chilled red—especially those that have gone through carbonic maceration and have a good sense of fruit and acid and softer tannins. “I like a nice bright wine to cut through the fat,” he says. “A Beaujolais or Gamay would work well, something easy drinking but equally as elegant.”

But Danae Smith, general manager at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery, prefers a buttery, light Chardonnay with her poke nachos. If there’s avocado on the poke nachos, it perfectly complements the slightly buttery and vanilla undertones from oak aging in many Chardonnays. Like our reviewers, she particularly appreciates the complex, fruity, medium-bodied Presqu’ile 2021 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay, which has a mineral finish.

Wine Enthusiast recommends:

Louis Jadot 2022 Beaujolais

This is a robust Beaujolais that holds its own. Deep-purple in color, this wine has a perfumed nose of black plum, blackberry, dried violet blossom and dried black cherry. Additional notes of forest floor and hay reveal themselves on the palate, which is concentrated with a slightly velvety texture. Age for five years or enjoy now. Best Buy. 90 Points  — R.S.

Total Wine

Lucy 2022 Gamay Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands)

Pay attention to the rise of Gamay in the Santa Lucia Highlands, because the grape shows tremendous character and charm in the appellation. Tightly woven aromas of dark cherry, boysenberry, rosewater and lilac lead from the nose into a juicy palate, where lovely cherry and berry flavors are lifted by candied lilac and a loamy minerality. Editor’s Choice. 93 Points  — M.K.

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