By Eric Novak, Hiller’s Wine Guru
Throwing burgers on the barbecue and popping open a cold, frosty beer is as American as apple pie – but these days Americans are drinking almost as much wine as beer and cooking more on the grill than burgers and dogs. What wine will you serve when the night’s bill of fare includes grilled flat iron steak with a spicy chimmichura sauce? What will pair with your cedar plank salmon? How about a mixed grill of sausages, chops and veggies? Or kebobs? Barbecued ribs? If you’re more adventurous with what you grill, the time has arrived to get more daring with drink choices as well.
While you’re waiting for the coals to burn down to that perfect light white ash, consider sipping a bright, fruity Sangria. Cruz Garcia Real Sangria and Aroma de Turis Sangria are two of the most popular pre-made Sangrias on the market. There are many others, too, or you can make your own. Sangria is as simple as mixing a bottle of dry red wine (Rioja works great) with an equal amount of Sprite and a good jolt of Cointreau. Throw in sliced fruit and serve in a tall glass of ice. Or get more complex. Google “Sangria recipes” and you’ll find many to follow.
When it comes to pairing wine with food on the grill, think first of matching flavors, then think of weight, acids and tannins. If that sounds too much like a cork dork’s version of a chemistry class assignment, don’t panic. We all have a more or less innate sense of what goes with what. I’ve never tried dill pickles with chocolate ice cream, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work too well. Your sense of what wines go with your barbecued piece de resistance will probably save you from disastrous pairings, too. That said, here are some examples to give you a sense of what I mean.
Let’s say I’m grilling chicken or halibut and planning to serve it with a peach/mango fruit salsa. Quick, easy, and delicious, it makes a perfect summer dinner on the patio. An oaky California Chardonnay would be a fantastic counterpoint. Why? First, because the oak flavors in white wine often show as caramel or buttery notes, beautifully highlighting the nice charred flavors from the grill.
And, the full body of a Chardonnay accents the rich texture of chicken or fish. Finally, the fruit characters of the Chardonnay grape – apple, pear and/or tropical flavors – go great with the fruit flavors of the salsa. Take things even a step further and look for a Chard that has undergone malolactic fermentation and been aged sur lie. Both are winemaking processes that help to emphasize Chardonnay’s creamy, mouth-filling potential. Since neither chicken nor halibut are particularly strong in flavor alone, I want flavors I’ve added from grilling and salsa to linger in the mouth with the accompanying tastes of fruit and creamy tones of the wine.
On the other hand, had I chosen a more strongly flavored, relatively fatty fish like salmon or swordfish, I should move toward a light Pinot Noir, perhaps one from Oregon, where the Pinot characteristically shows bright strawberry/raspberry flavors to highlight the fruit in salsa and a relatively light body that won’t overwhelm fish, as a heavier red might.
Pinot is an acidic grape. The acidity in wine refreshes the palate between bites of food. (Have a sip of Pinot or Sauvignon Blanc and swish it in your mouth. When you swallow, notice the salivation along your tongue. This is what a wine’s acidity does in your mouth, just like a lemon’s acidity.)
The acidity in a Pinot refreshes the palate after the heaviness of fish and the Pinot’s tannins help cut through a fish’s fatty texture. Tannins and fat work well together – is one reason why big tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec are the wines of choice with fatty cuts of meat like a Porterhouse or Delmonico steak. (The other reason for that pairing is that Cab and Malbec are big, full-bodied wines that can stand up to the big, full-bodied flavors of the steaks.)
One general guideline to remember is that wines with higher alcohol levels and tannins tend to do best with foods that contain higher levels of fat. This fat-and-tannin principle is part of the logic behind one of the very best food and wine pairings there is: Zinfandel and barbecued spare ribs.
Zinfandel is a high-alcohol-content dry red. (Please don’t try this with White Zin – I beg you!). Red Zin typically shows rich, dark berry fruit flavors and notes of white pepper which go amazingly well with spicy tomato and brown sugar-based barbecue sauces. It’s a marriage made in heaven, absolutely the bomb. The tannins and alcohol tame the excess of fat in the ribs, the dark fruit highlights the sauce – remember that tomato is a berry – and the pepper notes kick up the spice a notch.
Other wines that are particularly grill-friendly are Côtes du Rhône from the south of France and Barbera d’Asti from Italy. Both are medium–bodied and relatively high acid, with some tannins, but not overwhelmingly so. They match well with burgers, sausages or kebobs.
Syrah, which also goes by the name Shiraz in Australia and increasingly in other wine regions, is another wine with an affinity for grilled meats. It is frequently described as having nuanced aromas of smoked meat or bacon fat and thus, it pairs beautifully with almost any grilled meat.
I am particularly fond of Spanish Rosado with grilled vegetables. Good ones are dry, light, refreshing and full of red fruit aromas, from raspberry to watermelon with often a touch of herbal nuance as well.
Don’t forget your sparkling wines, either. Most tend to have a high degree of acidity so you get the refreshment factor; bubbles go particularly well with salty foods. If you want a secret food/wine pairing to make you a star at your next outdoor party: go for Champagne and really good gourmet potato chips!