The Ultimate Wine & Chip Pairing Showdown

26 11 2018

By Peter Vetsch

The event was almost a year in the making:  a one-versus-all challenge for pairing supremacy, putting the food-matching skills of eight local wine enthusiasts to the test against a backdrop of one of the more ubiquitous (and delicious) foodstuffs to grace a pantry.  Through extensive research and experimentation, and more than a little trial and error, we sought to answer the question: what wines pair best with the most common flavours of potato chips?  And who could best elevate a chip flavour with a pairing match that ticked all the right boxes?

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Here’s how our game was played.  After some market research, we first agreed on the top chip flavours that would participate in the competition:  BBQ, Salt & Vinegar, All Dressed, Sour Cream & Onion, Dill Pickle, Ketchup, Jalapeño Cheddar, and Bacon.  (A couple notes on these flavours:  1. “Plain” is not a flavour.  It has to HAVE a flavour to BE a flavour.  2. Americans, I don’t want to hear any complaining about All Dressed – it is a pantheon chip and no chip-based contest is complete without it.)  We were then each randomly assigned a chip flavour as our pairing muse and were tasked with finding the perfect pairing for that chip.  When we gathered together, we tasted through each flavour one at a time (again in randomly drawn order) and graded each potato chip/wine duo out of 10 on the strength of the pairing only:  the individual merit of each wine and each chip were disregarded, and the only question was how well they meshed together.  The top average score out of 10 took home the prize (which was nothing, other than eternal bragging rights and a pervasive sense of wellbeing).


I should add before diving into the results that potato chip and wine pairing is WAY harder than you might think (and that the bulk of the articles that you can Google on this point almost surely did not go as far as to actually taste their recommended pairings with their chips), as once you put glass to lips with a bowl of chips you realize it does not quite unfold as expected.  With very limited exceptions, potato chips are crammed full of bold, potent, concentrated flavours meant to pack a punch, which can lead to them overwhelming many a potential pairing match that might otherwise be complimentary from a flavour perspective.  Chips also contain an array of particularly exaggerated spicy, sour, sweet and/or salty notes that can pose pairing challenges on their own, let alone in combination (or, in the case of All Dressed, which features ALL of these flavours at once, in accumulation).  A successful chip pairing wine is either one that has the firepower to match the lab-tested amplitude of Old Dutch’s natural and artificial flavours, or one that can do enough to comfortably neutralize them and provide some palate relief without getting lost itself.  Neither are easy targets to hit.

Below I will set out (in the order that the tasting took place) each brave contestant in this inaugural PnP Wine & Chip Pairing Showdown (complete with Twitter handle), their assigned bag of fried potato destiny and their vinous gladiator.  Then I will include a brief explanation of basis for the pairing and the thought process behind it in each competitor’s own words, before assessing how it all worked out in practice.  Finally, I will reveal the outcome of the pairing in question, both on my personal ballot and in the overall official group tally.  You will see that my scores tend to be lower than the group’s across the board, which is more a personal reaffirmation of the difficulty of the mission on my end, a confirmation that a perfect processed potato pairing can be elusive.  Without further ado — let’s eat some chips.



THE CONTESTANT:  Tyler Derksen (@tderksen13)

THE CHIP:  Sour Cream & Onion

THE WINE:  2016 Marco Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio Russiz Superiore (~$50)

THE RATIONALE:  “I found the process of pairing a wine with this flavour to be remarkably difficult.  What struck me initially about Sour Cream & Onion was how mild the flavours were.  In addition to ‘potato chip’, the main flavours that stood out to me were an artificial caramelized onion and powdered dairy product (which I assume is the sour cream component).  I started my search out broadly, and by that I mean I had a handful of chips every time I opened a bottle of wine.  Some of these pairings were absolute disasters. The more instructive, albeit unsuccessful, attempts highlighted how easily the flavour of chip was obliterated by the wine.

Rightly or wrongly, I turned my attention to white wine.  I started with Riesling, because I love Riesling and drink a lot of it, but that had the same problem.  The sweet Mosel Riesling just didn’t pair well and the acid in the dry Rieslings once again overpowered the chip flavour.  Where then to turn?  I asked myself, what is the blandest white wine you can think of? Pinot Grigio of course, which is where this gets interesting.  I happened to be at Richmond Hill Wines one day and was lamenting my predicament to the staff and, as fortune would have it, they had a Pinot Grigio open for me to try.  Like all Pinot Grigios I’ve had, it was not bursting with flavour that would overpower the chips.  However, unlike all other Pinot Grigios I’ve had, I actually liked this one, as the flavours that were there were intriguing and had an unexpected complexity.  I wasn’t about to buy two bottles of $50 Pinot Grigio, so I have not actually tried the pairing yet, but I hope it works out.”

THE RESULT:  It did work out!  Sour Cream & Onion chips are the primary exception to my comment above about the general boldness of chip flavourings — these ones are intentionally subtle and toned down.  The Collio is soft, rich and fleshy for a Pinot Grigio, which nicely complements the lactic sour creaminess of the chips.  Its mild green apple, underripe peach, white flower and talc flavours actually come close to being taken over by this meekest of all chips, but the wine hangs in there and ends up succeeding in letting Sour Cream & Onion have its day in the sun.  The Collio’s acid backbone helps inject just enough verve into this otherwise introverted affair, though the faux-onion of the chips lingers far longer on the finish (as anyone who has eaten a Sour Cream & Onion chip can attest).  A winning combo in my mind and on my ballot.


(Group Average Score:  6.6/10  // My Ballot:  7/10, T-1st)



THE CONTESTANT:  Les Brown (@itsonlyles)

THE CHIP:  All Dressed

THE WINE:  2016 Aphros Phaunus Pet Nat (~$35)

THE RATIONALE:  “All Dressed chips present a unique challenge when it comes to pairing with wine given their combination of salt & vinegar, BBQ and ketchup flavourings.  I chose a wine with a delicate soft mousse to help cut through the chips’ oily texture; its dry body with citrus overtones should balance out the savoury and spicy flavours of BBQ and Ketchup.  Lively acidity helps to counteract the salty and vinegary nature of All Dressed chips.”

THE RESULT:  As Les correctly notes, All Dressed chips are chaos incarnate when it comes to pairing because they taste like everything, allowing for possibly the widest range of pairing options but making it hard for any one wine to hit all of the flavour-match targets in the chips.  The Phaunus is a 100% Loureiro (indigenous Portuguese white) Pet Nat from Vinho Verde that is powerful in structure (particularly its sharp, fully revved acidity) but quieter in flavour, boasting bruised apple, crystallized pineapple, savoury herb and yeasty elastic band notes.  The latter funkiness plays well in the All Dressed pool, and the scouring bubbles are helpful to sort through some of the chip flavour detritus, but the All Dressed volume is turned up so high taste-wise that the cautiously neutral Pet Nat can’t quite keep up and gets swept away in the maelstrom.


(Group Average Score:  5.6/10  //  My Ballot:  4.5/10, T-5th)



THE CONTESTANT:  Jim Maddocks (@YYCbikewinefood)

THE CHIP:  Salt & Vinegar

THE WINE:  2016 Mathilde Chapoutier Selection Grand Ferrage Rosé (~$22)

THE RATIONALE:  “While I love Salt & Vinegar chips, the pairing proved to be a lot more challenging than I expected.  I tried a significant number of wines, expecting that each would be ‘the one’:  Vouvray (meh), Riesling (not bad), white Rioja (bizarre), French Chablis (unremarkable), Cali Chardonnay (weird), New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (just bad), and Champagne.  I was convinced that Champagne was going to be the winner.  To my surprise, the vinegar notes in the chips flipped a remarkable Champagne into a strange and seriously unpleasant bitter concoction.  I finally settled on a Mathilde Chapoutier Cote de Provence rosé.  This turned out to be the ultimate selection.  I like the floral components, the dryness, and the best part, the fact that the Salt & Vinegar chips don’t do strange things to this wine.  It’s more difficult than I expected to pair a wine to these chips and it doesn’t help that my wife has been telling me to pair the chips with rosé for some time.  I hate it when she’s right.  All the time.”

THE RESULT:  Salt & Vinegar chips are a nuclear bomb — you might think that pairing wines with salty and sour notes would be a slam dunk, but when you’re talking THIS salty and THIS sour, it is a Herculean feat.  I think looking for some way to neutralize as opposed to accentuate these overpowering characteristics is a solid way to go, and this pleasant rosé went some of the way there:  its softness and fullness of texture (aided perhaps by the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon to the standard Provencal pink recipe) and gentle acid help put a lid on the flavour madness and keep the tongue from getting sliced to pieces.  The delicate strawberry, honeysuckle, rose, green leaf and earth flavours of the wine do not fully hold up under the onslaught, but as a mouthfeel play I quite enjoyed it.  As a side note, if you eat the chip first and then sip the wine, this unfolds quite pleasingly; if you sip the wine and then eat the chip, it’s wholesale Salt & Vinegar palate destruction.


(Group Average Score:  6.5/10  //  My Ballot:  6/10, 3rd)



THE CONTESTANT:  Dan Steeves (@dan_steeves)


THE WINE:  2015 Villa Wolf Pinot Noir (~$25)

THE RATIONALE:  “Barbecue foods and Zinfandel is a classic pairing, but when selecting my wine pairing for BBQ chips, I wanted to stay clear of such an expected choice and opt for a different approach. Lays BBQ chips are known for having a sweet and slightly smoky flavour that still feels light and tangy, so I hoped that a lighter and fruit-forward wine with savoury undertones could be a good match while not overpowering the chips. Having experimented with a couple lighter style Pinot Noirs, I selected the 2015 Villa Wolf Pinot Noir from the Pfalz region of Germany for its light and low-tannin mouthfeel, bright cherry and plum fruit flavours, and savoury notes of tomato leaf and oregano.” 

THE RESULT:  While I admired Dan’s somewhat-masochistic desire to avoid the more obvious big-BBQ-red pairings for these chips, and while I thought he was clever to pair this leaner wine with a more restrained style of BBQ chip (the Lays BBQ have a much quieter BBQ flavour than other brands and give the wine a bit more space), I think this particular bottle, from Ernst Loosen’s Pfalz project Villa Wolf, let him down a bit.  It came across as slightly underripe, thin and stemmy, with green pepper herbaceousness prominent among the strawberry (and strawberry leaf) and rhubarb fruit; with a bit more of a primary boost it could well have been a contender for the crown.  Even so, when both chip and wine were in the mouth the combination was quite pleasing, the subtler spice from the Lays filling in some of the gaps in the wine, the calmer presence of the wine still allowing the slimmed-down BBQ to express itself.  The group evidently agreed.


(Group Average Score:  7.1/10  //  My Ballot:  5.5/10, 4th)



THE CONTESTANT:  Warren Piers (@wpiers1)

THE CHIP:  Bacon

THE WINE:  2016 Laughing Stock Amphora Syrah (~$45)

THE RATIONALE:  “I was waffling between a Lambrusco (thinking the bubbles would cut through the chip grease and mimic ‘chips n beer’) and this, my ultimate choice. Both were a reasonable match for the smoky bacon chip, but I didn’t like the aftertaste of the Lambrusco and have never been a huge sparkling wine fan anyway.  My choice is the 2016 Laughing Stock Amphora Syrah, available only to Laughing Stock’s wine club members.  I wanted a biggish red, and I tried the 2017 version, which just arrived, and found it quite a good match for the chip. My recollection of the 2016 is that it had a more velvety texture and fuller mouthfeel, which should be even better with the Bacon, but we’ll see. Either way, the spiciness of Laughing Stock’s typical Syrah is softened in the winemaking process and makes for an interesting wine.  This Syrah it is made by hand-harvesting the grapes and then putting them into a 500L clay pot—and leaving it alone for 8 months. There is 9% Viognier in this one.”

THE RESULT:  Warren was quite correct that the clay amphora-based fermentation process took this Syrah in a markedly different direction than Laughing Stock’s bold, fruity standard Syrah, smoothing out the texture and adding prominent notes of molasses, malted chocolate and gelatin to the grape Kool-Aid fruit.  I thought the wine and Lays Smoky Bacon chips (again quite tamely flavoured – maybe a Lays thing?) tasted good together without really enhancing each other, and this also marked the first time where the wine crowded the chip a bit, masking the Bacon flavour and making it simply taste like “potato chip” when both were being tasted simultaneously.  This is a beast of a wine (14.9% ABV) and may have had a better run with a more aggressively seasoned Bacon brand.


(Group Average Score:  5.6/10  //  My Ballot:  4.5/10, T-5th)



THE CONTESTANT:  Raymond Lamontagne (@cabdialectic)

THE CHIP:  Jalapeño Cheddar

THE WINE:  2017 A.J. Adam Dhroner Hofberg Riesling Auslese (~$70)

THE RATIONALE:  “This was the chip flavour I least wanted to draw, because I’m not wildly fond of it and also because it’s a bit of a pairing nightmare. Although wine and cheese is a classic pairing, chili heat is notorious for neutering wines, wreaking havoc on perceptions of body and fruitiness, and these chips are kettle-cooked and thus have a different texture than the rest of the flavours we chose to include. I began by eating a few bags of these over the course of a few weeks, and it turns out they aren’t too terrible compared to what I recollect. The chili heat is palpable but not overly intense. I need a wine that can stand up to this slow building heat, not clash with the mild cheddar component, and complement both the grassy green pepper and cheese flavours. I first considered an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, ideally something off-dry, and if I lose this friendly competition I will likely regret my decision to go with a Riesling Auslese instead. However, I believe that the latter affords the same advantages as a Gewurz, with a few additional safeguards.

An Auslese, made with rather ripe grapes and fermented medium dry to medium sweet, will have enough fruit and residual sweetness to stand up to the jalapeno. The wine should remain delicious regardless of what the heat does to the palate, and the low alcohol will also safeguard against the terrible synergistic burn that happens with high ABV and heat combine. I also deduced that the richness of the wine will complement the cheddar powder, and that some of the floral and citrus aromas of the Riesling might mesh well with the jalapeno. The theory is very sound. I tested things out with a few less-ripe Spatlese bottlings and was pleased with the results, albeit with the slight concern that even these wines took a beating from the jalapeno. An Auslese should be better insulated.  In theory we trust.”

THE RESULT:  First, I can’t believe that Jalapeño Cheddar is actually a real flavour of anything.  Second, these chips don’t taste like cheese at all; they are remarkably neutral, tasting mainly of cooking oil, until the end when the chili fire starts, slowly at first, then with increasing intensity as you eat more and more.  The luscious sweetness, luxurious texture and low alcohol (7.5% ABV) of the Riesling hold in the heat (and, even more critically, do not fan the flames), and the Fuzzy Peach, gummy worm, Pop Rocks and blackcurrant flavours lead to a finish that stretches almost as long as the lingering heat does, allowing you to ponder over this pairing much longer than any of the other matches in this contest.  The hardest thing for me was the utter lack of flavour in the chip itself, making this more of a pairing with chili heat as a concept than with the actual snack before us.  As the chips pile up, the wine’s powerful acidity starts to provide a bit of an additional tongue irritant, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason why sweeter Riesling is the classic textbook pair for spicy foods.  It works.


(Group Average Score:  8.2/10  //  My Ballot:  7/10, T-1st)



THE CONTESTANT:  Me (@petervetsch)

THE CHIP:  Ketchup

THE WINE:  2015 Turley Old Vines Zinfandel (~$58)

THE RATIONALE:  I hate Ketchup chips, and because of that I hadn’t tasted them in about a decade before pulling their name out of the proverbial hat.  When I dug into my first bag for research purposes, the immediate thing that struck me was the main flavour ingredient I was tasting.  It wasn’t tomato, or vinegar, or spice, or anything you initially associate with ketchup.  It was sugar.  In addition to being turbo-flavoured, these chips are remarkably sweet (“sugar” is the third ingredient listed on the bag, after “potatoes” and “oil”, although to be fair it probably occupies a similar position in an actual bottle of ketchup).  A standard pairing rule with sugar-laced foods is to try to ensure that the matching wine is at least as sweet as the accompanying dish (which is one reason why off-dry Riesling and Chinese food work so well).  The problem is that I didn’t really want to go into the dessert realm with this pairing, as I feared that a Banyuls/Ketchup or Vintage Port/Ketchup combo might result in sensory overload.

So I instead went for a wine that was heavy on a structural component that often gives impressions of sweetness on the palate:  sugar’s successor in the fermentation process, alcohol.  I also wanted to find a wine that was bold but also juicy and primary in flavour, to better jive with the “sweet red” vibe that makes ketchup so popular.  I happened to be drinking a big Barossa Shiraz (Two Hands Max’s Garden) when I first opened the Ketchup bag and was rather amazed to see the wine get utterly dominated, so I knew that I had to go very big to have a chance.  The Turley Old Vines Zin is (at least) 15.5% alcohol, sweetly fruit-forward, silkily smooth and seamless; it succeeds as a wine for many of the same reasons that ketchup does as a condiment.  It was the very first wine that I thought of as a pairing and was synergistic magic when I first tasted the two together.  Try it!

THE RESULT:  Despite landing in the highly coveted right-after-Jalapeño-Cheddar slot in the tasting order, I thought that my pairing performed more or less as I had previously remembered, but since I can’t rightly objectively assess my own wine/chip match, I asked fellow PnPer Raymond Lamontagne to pinch-hit this session for me.  His report:

“Although I can see the logic here, I did wonder if that big ABV might clash with any acidity in the chips. This choice seemed rather risky. It turns out that this concern was ill-founded. The pairing worked quite splendidly, and Peter’s observation that this chip flavour is actually very sweet (rather than tart) proved prescient. The raspberry notes in the wine got a lift, and I encountered a pleasing melange of brown spice and red fruit, with nothing obviously out of place. Well-played”.


(Group Average Score:  7.6/10  //  My Ballot:  N/A [none of us scored ourselves])



THE CONTESTANT:  Scott Jackson (@SJACK_68)

THE CHIP:  Dill Pickle

THE WINE:  Chateau de Chaintres Blanc de Noirs Cremant de Loire NV (~$27)

THE RATIONALE:  “Having never paired Dill Pickle chips with wine before, I had no real point of reference or logical place to start, aside from thinking that it should probably be a white. So I decided I’d buy a large bag of Dill Pickle chips, put them in a decent resealable bag, and grab a handful every time I opened any white. I paired 8 separate bottles in total, the last 3 of which (plus my final pick) were bought solely with the Dill Pickle chip pairing in mind:  (1) Veneto, Prosecco (Extra dry); (2) Veneto, Prosecco (Brut), which was my top trial pairing match; and (3) Vinho Verde.

It definitely felt like I was getting a better handle on what was working as the process moved along. The ‘spritz’ (along with the predominant lemon notes) of the Vinho Verde was good, but it was obvious to me that dry bubbles made the best pairings out of the ones I tried. After these 8 pairings, on one random evening, I made myself a gin and tonic. I typically squeeze in some fresh lime, but didn’t have any on hand, so I used a lemon instead. I grabbed a handful of chips out of curiosity, and it just so happened to be an outstanding pairing. Unfortunately, it’s a wine and chip pairing event, not a spirits and chip pairing event, but with this in mind – dry, lemon notes with dill, bubbles – I bought the next bottle.”

THE RESULT:  Dill Pickle chips are an abomination.  They are the most intensely flavoured and aromatic potato chip ever created in Satan’s laboratory — you can smell them the second the bag is opened, no matter where you are in the room.  Scott’s pairing wine was absolutely stellar on its own, 100% Cab Franc traditional-method bubbles from the Loire that are a mind-blowing value under $30, a lively and complex mixture of raspberry, chalk, pink marshmallow candy, bread crust and wet rocks that elicited a number of ooohs and ahhhs from around the table.  Unfortunately, I think the added autolytic complexity and yeastiness proved to be a bit of a pairing detriment as compared to Scott’s secondarily tank-fermented winner of his tasting trials, the Brut Prosecco.  I may have been in the minority on this take, but I also wasn’t sure if bubbles worked with these demon chips, as their scouring action in combination with the Dill Pickle brininess seemed to have the effect of making everything taste bitter.  The Cremant had enough presence and flavour intensity to stand up to the dill, but the flavours themselves fought with each other on their way to digestive oblivion.


(Group Average Score:  5.9/10  //  My Ballot:  4/10, 7th)



My main conclusion from this tasting event is that I want to do it again.  I feel like we all learned so much from going through this process and from tasting all of the pairings together that another go-round (each with a different chip assignment?) would see each of us approach the challenge in a slightly different way.  I suspect that if this tasting were held again we might see more red wines on the pairing list, because they can potentially offer more boldness and flavour dimension than whites (thanks to added skin-contact complexity, as well as a greater likelihood of oak-aided breadth) and therefore stand up to the chip onslaught more easily; on the flip side, if we were pairing to neutralize instead of complement, I suspect more texture-heavy wines, maybe even fortified wines like sherries, might make an appearance.  There’s only one way to find out…rematch, anyone?



One response

3 12 2018
The Week in Zinfandel (11/26/18) | Zinfandel Chronicles

[…] Pop & Pour writes The Ultimate Wine & Chip Pairing Showdown. […]


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