As we were debating which recipes and pairings to add to our database next, we wanted to find a dish that would resonate with a lot of home cooks. We found just the thing in one of NYT Cooking’s most popular recipes: Chicken Francese, an essential dish for the serious home cook. If plenty of avid NYT Cooking readers are making this citrusy, buttery chicken dish, it’s time for us to find the best wine to take this home staple to the next level. We would have never predicted the wine that ended up creating the most exciting pairing with this tangy comfort food, but once we found it, there was no going back—and you won’t, either.
Though Chicken Francese is a staple at most classic Italian restaurants, its name (which translates to “French chicken” in Italian) leaves its origin in question. In the end, Chicken Francese is neither French nor Italian—it’s an Italian-American creation, likely born in the very red sauce joints in which the dish still lives today.
This home cook favorite is comprised of breaded chicken cutlets served in a sauce of lemon, butter, and white wine, topped with lemon slices cooked in butter and a dose of fresh parsley, and accompanied by pasta. Though a lemon-butter sauce might sound rich on paper, this Chicken Francese is actually quite fresh and mouthwatering, driven by lemony acidity.
This is one of those dishes that just seems too good to be true. Can a dish this easy to prepare really be this delicious? Is that all there is to it? But upon tasting (and re-tasting), we realized that the Chicken Francese’s delight is in its simplicity. Each element is present for a reason, and when every layer is integrated—from the lemon, to the pasta, to the chicken’s breading—the dish wraps the palate in a kind of soothing comfort.
Add this dish to your cooking arsenal and it will quickly become invaluable for its flexibility—easy enough to throw together on a weeknight, yet impressive enough to impress dinner guests, especially with an unforgettable wine pairing.
The Chicken Francese’s delicious simplicity emphasizes the need to find the best wine for pairing—when a dish is already this well-balanced, we want to elevate its flavors without throwing them off-kilter. To research potential wine pairings, we visited five top wine shops and asked the retailers what they would recommend to pair with this dish. Most of the shops jumped immediately to white wine, and by far the most popular recommendation was Chardonnay from around the world, including options from both Burgundy and Italy. The reasoning for this pairing was often one supported by flavor-matching: to match the lemon-butter sauce in the dish, many said, look for wines with notes of lemon and butter.
Several stores recommended Chablis for its crisp, clean, lemony flavors, while some also proposed richer, oakier white Burgundies like Pouilly-Vinzelles or Meursault, which would have more buttery notes. Two stores also recommended rich and buttery Italian Chardonnays to draw parallels between the dish’s supposedly Italian heritage.
But the retailers made a handful of other recommendations as well, again attempting to match the flavors of the Chicken Francese. One suggested a Vermentino, an Italian wine that often has notes of lemon; another opted for a Sancerre, noting that the wine’s acidity would work well with the dish’s brightness. Because Pinot Grigio is the de facto white wine pairing for Italian dishes in the eyes of many wine drinkers, one of the retailers threw that idea into the mix as well. There were two red wines in the bunch as well: a Pinot Noir and a Nebbiolo from the Italian Alps.
Overall, most of the wine pairing suggestions we received—and therefore, the ones that you would probably encounter when asking for recommendations from a shop—hinged on identifying the key flavors in the dish and matching them to specific wines. But from our perspective, great wine pairings don’t just work with the dish; they enhance the experience by adding layers of flavor. So, we came up with ideas of wines that might add dimension to the Chicken Francese—notes of salinity, for example—and added them to the blind taste test.
While recommending a wine pairing having tasted a specific dish in the past is one thing, actually tasting a dish alongside a wine takes pairing to the next level. For the Chicken Francese taste test, we invited Irene Miller, the beverage director at Lincoln Ristorante and a former chef herself, to join us and lend her thoughts. We tasted about 25 wines alongside the dish, all without knowing the identity of each bottle—and the results were surprising.
We divided our taste test results into three broad categories: Chardonnays, the wild cards, and our winning variety. From our research, Chardonnay was the typical pairing recommendation from most top wine shops, with styles ranging from straightforward and easy-drinking to complex and oak-driven. When tasted alongside the Chicken Francese, these typical wine pairings ranged from safe to downright problematic.
The notes of lemon in these Chardonnays often created a feeling of monotony on the palate; the Chablis, for instance, didn’t clash with the dish, but it also didn’t add any pleasure to the experience. We also found that the Chicken Francese tended to amplify any notes of wood in oaked wines, so the supremely rich, buttery, oaky Meursault, for instance, overwhelmed the dish and left an unpleasant bitter sensation on the tongue.
Wild card pairings are just that—wild cards. They can yield some exciting and unexpected results, but they can also disappoint. Unfortunately, these Chicken Francese wild cards were firmly in the latter camp. Theoretically, the Sancerre’s acidity would cut through the sauce’s richness, while its green notes would match the parsley garnish. But when tasted with the dish, the wine’s herbaceousness took over and created bitterness on the finish. For a soothing, comforting dish like this one, those bitter tones diminish the experience. And while the easy-drinking, straightforward Pinot Grigio didn’t clash with Chicken Francese, it also didn’t add anything to the dish.
We knew we could do better, and when we tasted one of the options from our additional brainstorm of wines, our senses leapt with happiness. Here was a wine that didn’t just try to match the Chicken Francese’s flavors; it added new ones, creating dimension and intrigue and downright joy. But even though we had tossed the option into the bunch thinking that it might work well, the identity of this truly great wine pairing was a shock once the blindfold came off the bottle.
The stunner was an Albariño – a white wine from Rías Baixas – an underdog grape variety that thrives in the oceanic vineyards of northwestern Spain. We had initially added Albariño into the mix to add an extra dimension of salinity to the Chicken Francese, but this wine actually stood out for other reasons. Many of the typical wine pairing recommendations, like Chardonnay, were chosen to match the dish’s lemony intensity. But the Albariño didn’t just match that lemon note—it added complementary flavors like peach and orange peel to burst onto the palate with layered complexity, richness, and intrigue. Hooked by this initial wine, we decided to taste 15 more Albariños to find the wine that reached the pinnacle of Chicken Francese pairing.
That first Albariño was the Granbazan ‘Etiqueta Verde’ Albariño 2017. Subtle peach characteristics added complexity to the straightforward citrus of the dish, and the seamless combination of weighty texture and mouthwatering acidity created far more pleasure than the lean acidity of other wines.
But when we tasted more Albariños, we found the pairing that sent our senses buzzing: the Zarate Albariño 2018. It had all of the positive attributes of the Granbazan and so much more—notes of peach, orange zest, lingering minerality, tongue-tingling texture, lip-smacking acidity. Not only was the Zarate Albariño completely in sync with the Chicken Francese, but it enlivened the dish, rounding it out and lifting it up. Trust us—without this combination, your recipe box simply isn’t complete.
What to Ask for at the Wine Store
Having a specific wine recommendation is gold, but sometimes your local wine shop just doesn’t carry that wine. While Albariño is a specific variety that almost always hails from Spain’s Rías Baixas region, every Albariño is different, as we found in our tasting. Here’s what to ask for when you can’t find our recommended wines:
- Ask for a medium-bodied Albariño with bright acidity, good flavor concentration, and plenty of salinity.
- Don’t be afraid of too much acid or intensity—these elements will resolve nicely with the dish!
- If you want to play it safe, or if your store doesn’t care Albariños, ask for a medium-bodied white Burgundy that has plenty of acidity and a touch of subtle oak.