Pairings | French onion soup
Matching wine and soup
One of the few food and drink combinations I don’t feel that happy about is wine and soup. Not all soups, obviously, but many of them.
Until recently I hadn’t formalised the feeling but it has as much to do with the type of food soup is (wholesome and comforting) as its texture and temperature.
If you’re having a bowl of soup on its own or as the main component of a light meal it seems superfluous to drink wine with it. Soup, unless it is virtually thick enough to stand a spoon in, doesn’t really need another liquid to accompany it. Especially if that liquid is chilled.
On the other hand if you’re in a restaurant and everyone else is ordering starters or your soup kicks off a three course dinner party at home you’re probably going to want a glass of wine. So which kind?
Many soups are quite delicate in flavour so the wine you choose with these needs to act as supporting cast rather than the star. Sometimes however, with very rich, creamy soups such as a creamy chicken soup or a chowder, wine can provide a welcome note of freshness and contrast - almost like a squeeze of lemon or an extra layer of flavour. The classic pairing of consommé and sherry (or Madeira) comes into that category. The sherry adds a touch of sweetness and nuttiness to balance the meaty savouriness of the soup.
The wines that I think generally pair best with soup are crisp dry whites with some intensity and persistence. Chablis and other inexpensive white burgundies, Alsace Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio and other neutral Italian whites such as Soave, Spanish Albarino and crisp, minerally Sauvignon Blancs like Pouilly Fumé or Sancerre. In short the sort of wines you drink as an aperitif and can carry on through the soup, sipping as much - or as little - as you like.
Here are some more specific suggestions:
Very thin soups
Classic French consommé: dry amontillado sherry or dry Madeira. Tomato consommé (Loire Sauvignon such as Sancerre) Asian broths flavoured with fish sauce, coriander and lime (Grüner Veltliner, dry German Kabinett Riesling)
Creamy vegetable soups
Smooth creamy vegetable soups generally go well with dry nutty Italian whites such as Pinot Grigio or Soave or with Pinot Blanc from Alsace. Fennel and cauliflower soups, which are particularly wine friendly, match well with good (but not over-oaked) white burgundy or other subtly oaked creamy Chardonnays, white Bordeaux, southern French blends of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier or Chenin Blanc (The creamier a soup is the more full-bodied a wine it can take)
If it's creamy drink lightly oaked Chardonnay. If it's darker and more mushroomy a Pinot Noir would work better
Again a lightly oaked Chardonnay is the easiest match, if it's creamy. If it's a Thai style soup made with coconut milk try pairing it with an Australian Riesling or Verdelho. With Jewish chicken soup don't drink anything alcoholic - it’s supposed to be healthy and restorative!
With a classic Provençal fish soup the flavours of garlic, tomato and saffron are as important as the fish and lead in the direction of a very dry crisp white like a Picpoul de Pinet or a strong dry rosé like a Tavel. Rich crab or lobster bisques match well with lush, opulent whites such as good white burgundy or a good quality but not overpowering Chardonnay. Creamy chowders fare better with a lighter, less expensive Chardonnay
‘Green’ soups such as watercress or spinach sometimes have a touch of bitterness about them that needs careful handling. Neutral dry Italian whites such as Soave, Bianco di Custoza and Lugana tend to match best
‘Sweet’ vegetable soups such as butternut squash and pumpkin pair well with rich Chardonnays or Viognier
If they’re made from fresh tomatoes and are quite light in taste and texture go for a crisp white like a Sauvignon Blanc or an Albariño. You could also drink a well-chilled manzanilla sherry. If the soup has a richer, roast or cooked tomato flavour or is mixed with roast peppers you could also drink a medium bodied Italian or southern French red or a young Rioja.
French onion soup has a very particular character, its melted cheese topping making it more like a hot cheese dish than a soup. Traditionally the French would pair it with a basic vin blanc or a really sharp white like an Aligoté or a Chasselas - the sort of wines you’d drink with fondue and I think that's the best answer.
Borscht and other beetroot soups
Really quite tricky with wine. Pilsner is incomparably better
Chunky, rustic soups with beans or pulses e.g. minestrone, lentil soup, chestnut and bacon soup - the kind of soup that's almost a stew. These match well with medium bodied rustic reds like Côtes du Rhône or young Syrah or Sangiovese. Chianti Classico is particularly good with chickpea soup.
Light, crisp dry whites such as Albariño are again the answer except for fruit soups which can make them taste uncomfortably sharp. (Try sparkling wine or a complementary fruit beer instead). With gazpacho you could try a modern unoaked white Rioja, Rueda or a fino sherry.
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