photo via Flickr/odanata98
photo via Flickr/odanata98

Oh, hey. It’s so cold again and the wind literally knocked enough leaves off the trees to bury our stairs out of our house by about a foot. You know what that means? I want to eat soup, that’s what.

The ultimate comfort food—short of anything slathered in butter or baked and served with ice cream—soup is the only way to make those (these? Are we really there already? Polar Vortex, is that you?) bitter nights fade away for a few happy moments. Simmer it all day, perfume your house with roasting vegetables and rich spices, make your family or cat or whoever is home happy.

The only tricky part about soup is that it provides a difficult pairing situation for wine. Typically, you’d find the loudest note, which is often the sauce on a plate, and start there for pairing. Wine will do essentially the same role, so take the soul of the sauce—spicy? Sweet? Rich umami? Bright?—and make the wine a complement that. Obviously there are exceptions, but that’s a good rule of thumb, but not for soup. Soup has a liquid base, but it’s often complicated texturally. Veggies, meat, beans, greens, rice, pasta, whatever’s floating around in there offers a different textural and flavor experience, and ideally, one isn’t dominating any other. The point is harmony. So what to do? Ask yourself these questions first:

  1. What’s the dominant flavor?
  2. What’s the texture?
  3. What would you like the wine to do?

Here’s my best, if fallible, ideas for what to pair with some typical soups you’ll encounter this fall in restaurants, lunch spots, and hopefully your own kitchen.

The Cream-Based or Blended Soup

Dominant flavor: This is key. Cream-based (or creamy) soups can be anything from shellfish bisques, blended seasonal vegetables (buzzword: veloutée), coconut milk-based soups, you name it: what are you up against? This season, there’s a fair chance you’re talking root-veggie soups like pumpkin and squash, which generally means a subtle sweetness as well as creamy flesh. Dominant texture: cream-based soups are fairly consistent: creamy. 

Dominant texture: Cream-based soups offer a pretty predictable texture: creamy.

Wine purpose: creamy soups, even if they lack actual cream (ex: coconut milk), need something to cut their richness. I want my wine to not combat the potentially subtle flavor, but to counter the thick, often heavy texture.

Solution: For me, those squash/pumpkin soups love a high acid wine with delicate fruit (and perhaps even a touch of sweetness of there’s a little spice to contend with), like an Alsatian Riesling or, even better for me, a sparkling wine. The acid cuts through the richness, counters the smooth texture with bright, fresh punch and brings balance to the force.

The Spicy Chili-Soup

Dominant flavor: Chili comes in all shapes and sizes, different color bases, kinds of heat, kinds of meat, garnishes…the possibilities are truly endless. But last night I made a turkey chili with a charred tomatillo and poblano pepper base, which means it was a little acidic and a little spicy without a ton of fat.

Dominant texture: Chilis are notoriously heterogeneous in texture with meat, beans, and/or vegetables coexisting in a rich broth. “Mixed” may be the best description here.

Wine purpose: to counter the spice and to accentuate the various herbs and spices, like cumin, chili powder, oregano, and cinnamon (I always use cinnamon).

Solution: My turkey tomatillo chili had a slow, latent and gentle heat and I would’ve been content to drink a little of the Washington State Pinot Gris to play a very distant second-fiddle to my loud supper. But my hubs decided to pop the cork on a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and I have to say it was one of the best and unexpected pairings I’ve had in a while. Chile’s intense sun means intense fruit from the grapes, followed by an intense dose of new oak that creates spice, pastry notes, and adds texture. Somehow, even though Cabernet is pretty tannic, the fruit in the wine beats the spice in the chili. It was outstanding.

The Mostly-Broth Soup

Dominant flavor: Broth soups are as varied as cream-based soups, but generally (and ideally) it’s based on a rich, savory, umami flavor with great depth and complexity without much weight. Mine are usually brown chicken stock or mushroom-based, earthy and toasty.

Dominant texture: sheer and elegant. Good versions of these soups are always baffling because they are full of flavor and complexity, but also delicate and light in texture. Sometimes people toss a bunch of stuff in them, like chicken noodle soup, but the base is the same

Wine purpose: In this circumstance, I want a wine to act as a backdrop to the soup, serve as a subtle complement without stealing or crushing the main event.

Solution: One wine I come back to often is Barbera from northern Italy, a sheer red with high acid and great red cherry fruit and minerality that counters all the melded flavors of brothy soup. I would also happily choose a high-toned Italian white like Arneis or a Spanish Albariño.

Have a soup in mind? Run it by me! I do love a challenge, and I’m always looking for more ideas and ways to flex the old viniferous brain cells, but more importantly, I’d just like good ideas about how to stave away these cold nights.