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Nov 27, 2012
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Wine With...Three-Bean Chile Con Carne

There’s no mystery as to why chili, either with meat (con carne) or without, is one of America’s most beloved and most enduring dishes. It’s relatively simple and affordable to make; it’s even better when cooked a day or two ahead of time, and it is a terrific party dish -- an important consideration as the holiday season approaches! And here’s another reason why we’re enamored of chili: while beer is the more traditional beverage to gulp down with it, chili can be slightly tweaked so as to become a stunning partner for serious wines.

Few dishes are so adaptable to individual tastes and available ingredients as chili. The meat is traditionally beef, either ground or cut in bite-size chunks, with pork as a popular alternative. We’ve found that ground bison is another deliciously lean and flavorful option that can yield an especially elegant chili well suited to upmarket wines as well as more modest selections.

When it comes to the beans, there are no established general traditions. Dried beans are probably a touch tastier after prolonged cooking, but canned beans can be perfectly fine. Just about any type works well: black-eyed peas, black beans or white, kidney, pink or red beans -- are all good in chili. We used three different ones (black, kidney and northern white) in this recipe, and they provided added texture, color and complexity.

To produce a dish that was intense but not incendiary, refined rather than rambunctious, we reined the spice level in a notch or two, and did not include distracting toppings. Fresh salsa, for example, is an essential accompaniment to chili when wine doesn’t matter, but the acidity and raw flavors inherent in good salsa do not really complement most fine wines. We offered earthy, crumbled feta instead of richer, fattier cheddar as a topping, and rather than serve traditional corn bread, tortillas or corn pudding with it, we found polenta to be a savory and sophisticated accessory.

Three-Bean Chili Con Carne

serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup chopped red, yellow and/or green bell pepper
1 pound ground bison or beef
1 tablespoon minced chipotle in adobo*
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1 cinnamon stick
2 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 cups cooked beans
1 cup red wine

*Canned chipotle in adobo may be found in most supermarkets. We put leftovers in a small freezer bag and freeze them for future use.

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and peppers and cook over medium heat until they begin to soften (do not brown). Add the meat and raise the heat to medium high, cooking just until the meat begins to take on some color. Stir in the chipotle, garlic and spices, and cook another 5 minutes or so; then add the remaining ingredients. Simmer, covered, for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Refrigerate overnight if made a day ahead.

Suggested garnishes: lime wedges, chopped avocado, crumbled feta cheese, sour cream, plus a small bowl of cayenne, Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes to be passed at the table.

* * *

We thought of this chili as a red wine dish, and the ten reds we tried pretty much all worked well with it. A California Pinot Noir was a bit too sweet, and a South African Bordeaux blend displayed an annoying rubbery bouquet, but those were problems with the wines, not the pairings. In keeping with our idea of chili as a good holiday dish for holiday entertaining, we also tried a couple of sparklers. Though a Prosseco tasted sappy, the dry Californian we’re recommending made for one of the best matches of the evening. We were somewhat surprised, but definitely delighted. Overall, the best pairings came from New World, especially Golden State wines. This dish wants a fruit-filled partner, not a subtle mineral-laden one.


Approx. Price


Atalon, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2009


A delightful Napa Cabernet that is fully ready to drink, this wine is marked by black fruit flavors that will more than hold their own with chili. At the same time, there’s nothing excessive or overtly fleshy about it, so it made for a delectable pairing.

Paul Dolan, Mendocino County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2010


More austere and tightly wound than the Atalon Cab, this wine’s appeal came from its taut, sinewy personality. It provided a textural contrast more than a complement when enjoyed with the chili.


Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (California) Zinfandel “Old Vine” 2009


The inherent spiciness in Zinfandel made this an attractive partner for the chili. Unlike a great many Zins, though, it did not seem hot or heavy, but rather refreshing because extremely well balanced.

J, Russian River Valley (California) Sparkling Wine “Cuvée 20” NV


We did not expect this pairing to be so successful. Thinking about it though, the symmetry makes sense. The wine is very refreshing, with citrus flavors and a toasty finish. As a result, it lightens a fairly rich and full-bodied dish, giving the chili a zesty edge.

Vina Robles, Paso Robles (California) “Red # 4” 2010


A Rhône-style blend, this wine’s peppery character echoed the spice in the chili, allowing it to blend in nicely with the dish. It made for an excellent pairing, especially on a cold late fall evening.