Burn, Baby, Burn

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A Sommelier Sheds Light on the Best Wines for BBQ
by Courtney Cochran

Firing, roasting, and grilling are decidedly du rigueur during the summer months, but finding wines that work well with this tricky fare can be a challenge. Just as shining a spotlight on an actor onstage brings her features into focus for an audience, these cooking methods serve to concentrate the flavors of whatever's being cooked, necessitating a wine with both strength and personality to stand up to the food.

Read on for the low-down on some of the more common characteristics of flame-cooked fare and how to track down the perfect wines to pair with these traits.

Cooking Method
When pairing wines with foods that have been cooked over flames, it's important to consider the nature of the cooking method:

  • Grilling introduces flavors of char to a dish since it involves direct contact between the food and a grill. 
      Recommended wines
      Oaked Chardonnay (grilled fish) - Bordeaux reds, especially from appellations Pauillac
      and St. Estêphe(grilled meats) - Fumé Blanc (grilled vegetables)

  • Roasting, on the other hand, does not introduce these flavors since there's no contact between the food and grill; dishes that have been roasted, instead, tend to have strong savory flavors thanks to the protracted nature of the cooking method.
      Recommended wines
      Southern French reds, especially from appellations Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and      
      Châteauneuf du Pape (roasted meats including pork and chicken) - Syrah, especially
      from France's Côte-Rôtie and Australia's Barossa (roasted meats).

  • Firing, finally, introduces flavors to food often described as "blackened" as a result of the direct contact between flame and food.
      Recommended wines
      Pinot Gris, especially from France's Alsace (blackened fish and light meats) - Petite    
      Sirah, especially from California's Amador County (fired dark meats)


Sauce Stats
Another key consideration when pairing wines with flame-cooked fare is the kind of sauce (if any) that's been used in preparing the dish:

  • BBQ sauce is notoriously sweet, a result of the generous amount of sugar added to most commercial blends. This sweetness should be matched by a fruity sweetness in your wine (wines that are overly tannic or lacking in fresh fruit flavors will taste unappetizingly dry by comparison).
      Recommended wines
      Fruity California Zinfandel, especially from Lodi, Chilean Merlot, and South African or
      Australian Shiraz (barbecued meats, including chicken and pork)

  • Pepper and herbs abound in "rubs" that are often applied to meat before it hits the grill. These translate directly to flavors found in the finished dish, and as such should be considered in your wine selection. Wines with peppery or herbal nuances work swimmingly in these instances; those without these notes are at risk of tasting overly fruity and one-dimensional.
      Recommended wines:
      Italian reds including Barbera and Brunello, Southern French reds and rosés, and
      mature Spanish reds from Rioja and Navarra (light and dark meats)

  • Fruit salsas and glazes are some of the trickiest accompaniments to wine. Often intensely sweet in nature, these require wines that are both fruity and low in tannin, since the latter tastes terrifically dry with sweet foods.
      Recommended wines:
      Riesling, especially Kabinett-level versions from Germany (light meats, fish, and
      chicken) - Gewurztraminer (fish and chicken) - French Beaujolais, made from the fruity,
      low-tannin Gamay grape (dark meats)

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