Conventional wine wisdom often highlights young, fresh white wines with plenty of crisp acidity for summertime, but reds can make their mark for summer. They work best especially around the grill with red meat.
If you are having a backyard barbecue, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to pairing wines with your grilled classics, but there are guidelines to help you get the perfect pairing. Just remember, pairing wine with grilled foods is a forgiving task.
Generally, red wines go well with grilled red meats – basic burgers, steaks, ribs and more. These meats are often somewhat salty, a bit smokey and, when grilled with marinades, sauces, or added condiments, and tend toward being a touch sweeter or spicier. Most grilled dishes are relatively simple; there’s a main ingredient (usually a protein of some kind), plus seasonings in the form of marinades, rubs and sauces.
To choose a wine to pair with something off the grill, consider two things: First, how hearty is the food, and second, what’s the dominant flavor?
For lighter foods—white-fleshed fish, vegetables, chicken breasts—pick a lighter wine. For heartier foods—sausages, burgers, steaks—choose a more robust wine. (You can find light-, medium-, and full-bodied wines in both red and white.)
Now we tackle flavors. The dominant flavor is a key thing to consider when selecting a wine. If your meat dish contains a heavy-duty dose of sauce — barbecue, teriyaki, brown sugar, or your own secret recipe— give it wine pairing priority over your meat.
For steaks and butterflied legs of lamb—even if they’re marinated beforehand—the dominant flavor will almost always be the meat itself. If any of these are the mainstay on the plate, spicy wine lovers should opt for a solid Zinfandel or Shiraz. For those who prefer their wine more fruit forward, a more mellow Merlot will fill the bill. If your standard palate preference is a Cabernet Sauvignon with a firm backbone, go for it, will also give the meat a hand-up.
If you find chicken, fish, or pork chops on your plate and you really, really have your heart set on a red wine, then a Pinot Noir with its smoky background or a fruit-forward Merlot would be a safe bet. Don’t forget if the chicken is slathered in barbecue sauce or the shrimp is covered with a fiery garlic-habanero vinaigrette, the sauce or seasoning is by far the main flavor of the dish and the wine should compliment those flavors.
Okay those are the guidelines, but how do you decide which varietal is best for your grilling expertise?
America’s favorite red, Zinfandel, is able to handle a wide variety of red meats. This bold red wine bellies up to meaty, smokey flavors. Zinfandel’s black pepper spice, acidity and ripe tannins can often carry your meat’s fats and texture to a new dimension. A Zin works well with barbeque sauce, steak sauce and mild salsas. One thing to remember if there is too much spice in the sauce the wine and sauce will compete and both will end up as losers.
With the characteristic fruit-forward flavor profile, Merlot will support the spice and not aggravate it. Yes, Merlot is the spicy sauce answer to the above dilemma. Grilled pork chops, chicken and garden-variety salads with lighter dressings also mingle well with Merlot.
Number three on the grill-friendly wine list, Syrah or Shiraz is delicious with just about any red meat. Offering dynamic, somewhat aggressive fruit flavors, balanced with more mellow tannins and a softer-fuller body – this wine’s place to shine is definitely at a barbecue gathering! Consider a bold, Australian Shiraz with a plate full of nachos or buffalo wings. Rhône Valley Syrahs tend to have a smokier flavor characteristic and lend themselves extremely well to smoked meats.
Cabernet lovers, you know Cabernet Sauvignon is made for steaks with a higher fat content and beef or turkey burgers. The tighter tannins of this fourth choice are significantly mellowed by the meat’s fat, producing a palate pleaser to remember! Top your burgers with bold cheeses, such as Humboldt Fog or a sharp Vermont cheddar and this varietal gets even better!
Number five is a flexible varietal that is known for being extremely food-friendly: Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can go from grilled fish to a juicy burger in a single sip. An ideal candidate for grilled fish – especially salmon, burgers and chicken both show their best in the presence of a good Pinot Noir. If you aren’t sure what wine will work with your grilled dinner, Pinot Noir will probably be your best choice.
The lighter meats and sauces are more apt to flow better with white wines that share similar flavors as the foods they are meant to accent. Chardonnay or Spanish Albariño will perk up chicken, shellfish, and grilled fish. Chardonnay also works wonderfully with creamy sauces, and grilled corn on the cob with lots of butter!
My favorite Sauvignon Blanc has a herbaceous quality that supports marinades and sauces with similar attributes. For example, grilled chicken that has been doused in Italian dressing or a citrus marinade will be unbeatable with a Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted peppers, veggies in fresh herbs, grilled fish with dill and lemon and an array of appetizers will all be highlighted in tandem with a Sauvignon Blanc.
The perfect varietal for grilled bratwursts, shrimp, barbecue chicken, grilled pineapple and a variety of grilled veggies is none other than Riesling. Bone-dry, Kabinett, Auslese, or Spätlese, all offer the beautiful flavors of ripe fresh fruit, to balance these dishes. It’s hard to beat an off-dry Riesling (the higher residual sugar does it’s part to tame the heat)
If you’re not sure about Riesling then Gewürtztraminer often offers a balance to spice with its slightly to moderately sweet character. This varietal would is a great choice to go with blackened Mahi Mahi, or grilled Cajun chicken with fresh mango salsa.
Don’t forget your sparklers! Champagne from France, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy and all manners of sparkling wines from across the globe are great in the summer for their natural acidity and refreshing bubbles. Not just for celebrations, sparkling wines are excellent additions to the dinner table and work well with many types of seafood. Believe it or not, sparkling wine is amazing with salty, greasy potato chips! Try a sparkling Cava for chips and salsa. A light sparkling wine will also handle cheesy nachos well, especially if there is a bit of spice to them.
Wine may be the most versatile food partner there is, so whatever you decide to pair with your favorite grill, make certain that your wine serving temperatures are on target. Summer heat can turn a good red wine into an overly warm alcohol bomb, and whites stranded on ice until poured and then stuck back in the ice bin, can find their aromatics and fresh flavors muted by the frigid temperature.
Ultimately, it is your palate that your seeking to please by the wine pairing so happy grilling and see you around the barby!