Pairing Wine with Food from the Grill


One of the most frequent frustrations of culinary enthusiasts about wine and food pairings involves the pleasures of the grill. And, to be sure, there are several aspects of the flavors and textures common to grilled, smoked, or barbecued food that significantly impact the enjoyment of wine.

The influence of food on wine is usually far greater than the converse when cooking on the grill; after all, we’re talking about robust cuisine that can protect its turf quite well. The big flavors, body and richness of food will affect, and can totally overwhelm, various elements of wine. Each method of cooking on the grill has its own set of attributes to which wine responds. However, there are also certain characteristics that are common to food from all three methods:

  • Smokiness — the rich, somewhat sweet, vanilla and earthy flavors
  • Caramelization — the sweetness of the meat’s burned sugars
  • Protein — which interacts with, and softens the effect of, tannins in the wine
  • Fat — providing depth of flavor and richness

These four characteristics seek a wine with a lot of body, richness and depth of fruit flavor. The wine also needs an adequate level of acidity or tannins to contrast with, and cut through, the succulent texture of the meat. An obvious example is a grilled rib-eye steak paired with a big, fruit-forward Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The somewhat sweet fruit, tannins and full body, coupled with the vanilla or caramel flavor imparted by the charred oak barrels, complements the steak perfectly.

Grilling

Creating the perfect match for simply grilled meat is not something that warrants obsession and anxiety. Most grilled red meat can be sumptuous with, and enhance, most red wine varietals, as long as the wine has sufficient body, depth of flavor, tannins and acid. That includes an array of choices. In addition to New World cabernets, suitable partners include Syrah (which sometimes has a lovely note of smoke flavor), Merlot, and red Zinfandel. If the smoke flavor is not too dominant, a Pinot Noir, Rioja, or Chianti can be a great pleasure, with the wine’s acidity serving as a refreshing counterpoint to the meat’s texture. These latter three wines also pair well with grilled chicken. My preference for the chicken, though, is a lovely white wine — a Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (one from Sancerre or Pouilly Fume’ with their mineral, citrus and light smoke flavors would be ideal) or Viognier.

A tip to remember when grilling — if the meat becomes charred in spots it will impart a bitter taste. Bitterness in food accentuates, rather than tempers, the taste of bitterness in wine. Particularly in a tannic wine, the result can be quite unappealing. A partial remedy is to squeeze a few drops of lemon juice (which is sour, not bitter) onto the charred area of the meat, which will reduce its bitter quality and enhance the meat flavors.

Smoking

Now, let’s proceed to the more challenging front, one in which all of the taste characteristics discussed above are augmented by spice, herbs or sugar, or likely a combination thereof, and a heavier dose of smoke. If the meat is being smoked, it is generally marinated in a spicy dry rub or liquid solution for at least several hours. It is then positioned in low, indirect heat and smoked for several hours more. Hence, we have big, sweet, spicy, sometimes pungent, flavors permeating the rich, tender meat. The spice, depending on its sharpness, will tend to suppress the perception of acidity in the wine, lessening its liveliness and, if the spice is intense, making the wine taste flat and uninteresting. Meanwhile, the heavy smoke flavor can dominate the flavors of the wine. Accordingly, smoked meat needs a big wine with some spice and oakiness. A good choice would be a Syrah, Petite Sirah or red Zinfandel. With lightly smoked meat and chicken, a Cote Rotie from the Northern Rhone or a Rioja from Northern Spain can be magnificent.

In a recent foray into decadence, I joined friends for a feast of smoked (about 10 hours) beef brisket, with which we drank three superb Zinfandels from Martinelli (Jackass Vineyard), Turley (Old Vines) and Copain (Arrowhead Mountain) wineries; gastronomy seldom reaches such heights of satisfaction.

Barbecuing

As we move up the curve of difficult pairings, the slope becomes acute as we enter the world of traditional backyard barbecue; i.e., ribs and chicken basted with sauce. In the context of this article, it is assumed that a fairly mild sauce or dry rub is used. Anything more points you to the beer cooler.

This is a style of cooking with as much a social priority as a culinary one, and the wine is likely to be incidental to the enthusiastic repartee and room-filling aromas. Nevertheless, there are some good accompaniments to those spicy, tangy and sweet flavors. For beef, stay with a big, spicy red, such as Zinfandel (Cartlidge & Brown and Rabbit Ridge are very good values) or Petite Sirah (Bogle offers a terrific Petite Sirah for about $12).

For pork and chicken, two white varietals, Riesling and Alsatian Gewürztraminer, are excellent choices. A good Riesling, probably the world’s most under-appreciated fine wine, will provide the refreshing acidity to stand up to the meat’s spiciness and cut through its richness, while possessing a rich core of concentrated fruit flavors (citrus, apple, melon) to complement the sweetness of the smoke and sauce. German Riesling works particularly well because of its high level of acid and depth of flavor. Another factor favoring the German Riesling is its relatively low alcohol content, usually 8-9%, which is especially preferable if eating outdoors in warm weather. As wine becomes warm, the taste of the alcohol becomes more pronounced and can produce a metallic aftertaste to both the food and wine. Austrian and Alsatian Rieslings are typically more austere than their German counterpart, and the sweetness of the sauce simply makes them more so by suppressing the sweetness of the wine. Nevertheless, Alsatian producers Trimbach and Barmes Buecher offer some wonderful Rieslings that would go well here.

The Gewürztraminer can be a truly marvelous match. It projects bold flavors of caramelized grapefruit and exotic spices, and possesses a lush, viscous body that harmonizes with the succulent textures of the chicken and ribs. It also has ample acidity and a somewhat bitter aftertaste to clean and refresh the palate. Gewurztraminer is an acute departure from a traditional barbecue event in this country, but I highly recommend you give it a try. It may become a staple for such repasts.

While there are certainly other varietals to be explored, I suggest beginning with these. They should provide great pleasure, along with useful reference points for the styles of wines that work with fare from the grill.