Sipping the right wine with any meal is often as important as the food itself.
However, knowing which varietals that will elevate a dish from satisfactory to spectacular is a full-time job. TODAY Food teamed up with two sommeliers leading a wine pairing event at this year's Charleston Wine + Food festival to discover the ins and outs of how to plan a perfect meal with superb sips.
Miles White and Femi Oyediran, the longtime friends behind Charleston's wine shop and bar Graft, truly know their grapes. Being connoisseurs armed with a selection of 200 to 250 bottles at their own establishment, they also know which wines can make a Southern dish shine.
Elizabeth Heiskell's exquisite dinner menu is the perfect opportunity to put palates to the test while exploring decadent and diverse plates of Southern fare.
Candied bacon, or “pig candy” as it's often called in the South, is always a home run. Heiskell loves to serve these party pleasers in a mint julep cup to make the perfect nibble at any bar. Plus, they're incredibly easy to make. The whole cooking process, including cooling, will take no more than an hour.
What to pair it with: Vouvray, Chenin Blanc
According to White and Oyediran, you can find a great bottle of this wine for around $14. The touch of sweetness in Loire Valley whites from France pairs well with the sweetness of this dish. These wines also have enough acid to balance the fattiness of the bacon, making this a great pairing with any type of sweet and salty combination.
These Crispy Cheese Coins have rice cereal in them which makes them delightfully crunchy. It's hard to imagine a more unexpected ingredient here.
What to pair it with: Txakolina, Hondaribbi Zuri, Spain
This Spanish wine, which retails for about $9, might not be a household name, but it's incredibly delicious, versatile and is likely available at your favorite local wine shop. These wines are "making a splash in the wine world, are a great value, light and very drinkable," Oyediran told TODAY Food.
They also have "a touch of herbaceousness and salinity" that goes well with salty snacks, plus, they also have a little effervescence when first opened, which is an added bonus and makes a festive sipper.
This award-winning catfish dip was made famous by The Crown Restaurant in Indianola, Mississippi, and is always served with Bremner wafers, though in this recipe Heiskell uses pork rinds as dippers.
"I was completely obsessed from my very first bite," Heiskell told TODAY.
Ready to serve in an hour and 30 minutes (most of which is cooling time), leaves plenty of time to prep other dishes for a fun party.
What to pair it with: Dry Riesling
Minerality and acid play very nicely with the slight smoke of this dish. Dry rieslings, which are available pretty much everywhere, have an elevated acidity level which go perfectly with the cream cheese element in this dish. Each sip will cleanse your palate and prepare your tongue for your next bite.
Panzanella salad is a wonderful dish to enjoy as an appetizer or main with versatile ingredients that can be adjusted for what's in season. While more summery versions call for watermelon, Heiskell's spin utilizes wintry root vegetables like squash, turnips and sweet potatoes. The result? A gorgeous, healthy plate sure to satisfy any craving.
What to pair it with: Gamay Wine (often labeled Beaujolais)
Gamay grapes are famous for producing light, juicy, fruit-forward red wines. Some can be quite pricey but you should be able to find a great bottle for around $15. This fruity wine will definitely complement the tangy cheese and juicy beets.
This Versatile Vinaigrette from Heiskell's cookbook, "What Can I Bring?," is the perfect go-to for entertaining, dinners for one, two or six and easy to pack for lunches, picnics and tailgates (because it's not all about fried food in the South).
This Cajun-style fried chicken is everything you'd want in a classic Southern dish: it's savory and flavorful, juicy and tender. It doesn't take too much time to get dinner on the table, either.
What to pair it with: Sparking white wine, like Cava or Champagne
"One of the best pairings out there ... birds and bubbles are what dreams are made of," White told TODAY.
There's nothing quite like the balance of salty and sparkling, so White and Oyediran recommend pairing fried chicken with something that's dry and has lots of bubbles. The fruity acidity is a wonderful complement to the crisp chicken skin. If it's a special occasion, spring for a more expensive bottle of Champagne (which can climb into the $100s). For a more affordable, yet similar experience, another dry, white sparkling wine will do. Try a Spanish cava or drier Italian prosecco. There are great bottles of these bubblies starting at around $10.