Woodsmoke: One of the most enticing smells known to humans (and our dogs, too, apparently). While cooking over an open fire runs deep in our DNA, knowing which wines pair best with barbecued or grilled cuisine is a learned skill. In addition to matching textures–pairing dense foods with full-body wines and delicate foods with light-body wines—you need to factor in the sauce, heat source, fat content and protein type. If two factors conflict, go with the dominant factor. In the case of a lean fish in a creamy sauce, for example, a rich sauce would dictate a full-bodied white.
Ready to become a BBQ-grilling wine pairing expert? Let’s go!
The secret is in the sauce. BBQ sauces tend to have a main base of tomato, vinegar or mustard. If the sauce is slightly sweet, tangy or spicy, look for a fruit-forward, lower-tannin wine, such as Pinot Noir or Grenache. If smoky, reach for a wine that has tobacco notes, such as a Syrah. Below are some surefire (pun intended) pairings:
Tomato-based (Memphis, Texas, Kansas City)
- Memphis – Grenache is great for balancing the splash of vinegar in this sauce. Yangarra McLaren Vale Grenache is a sure bet.
- Texas – With its smoky overtones, this sauce calls for Syrah. Either Ex Post Facto Santa Barbara County Syrah or Bootleg Prequel would be sublime.
- Kansas City – Its secret ingredient, molasses, finds harmony in a juicy wine. Go for Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel.
Vinegar-based (East Carolina) – A dry rosé plays well with the tartness in the sauce.This Sangiovese-based rosé from Câpture is your friend.
Mustard-based (South Carolina) – Play it safe with a fresh white or rosé that has been fermented in stainless steel when it comes to this spicy, tangy sauce. Pour the WillaKenzie Willamette Valley Rosé.
The way food reacts to heat depends on temperature, aspect and hang time. These three elements differ depending on whether you’re grilling or barbecuing and should factor into your wine choice.
Grilling – During grilling, food is exposed directly to high heat over an open flame for a short time, creating char. You’ll want to pair slightly charred food with a wine that has been aged in new oak barrels. New oak barrels—which have been charred prior to being filled with wine—impart toast, vanilla and mocha notes to the wine, which emphasize the charred flavor in grilled food. Think charred food, freshly toasted barrels.
- Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a beautiful choice here.
BBQ/smoking – In contrast to grilling, smoked food is exposed indirectly to high heat over wood or charcoal embers for a long time. Minus the burnt ends, slowly smoked BBQ food, such as barbecued ribs, chicken or pulled pork, pairs better with less oak-driven, lower tannin wines, such as Grenache, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel.
- Want a mind-blowing pairing? Serve Maggie Hawk Unforgettable Pinot Noir wine with BBQ beef brisket. Smokin’ good!
When grilling or barbecuing red meat with higher fat content, look for a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or other bold red wine with structured tannins. The umami and fat in the meat mellow the tannins in the wine, bringing out the flavor in each.
You can’t go wrong with a slab and a Cab! Try steak and Stonestreet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. If you prefer white wine, splash some lemon juice and salt on your steak and pour a glass of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay – it’s a surprisingly delicious match.
Certain foods pair naturally with certain wines. You can always lean on the saying “What grows together, goes together” to choose a wine in a pinch. Below is a quick cheat sheet:
|Grilled or Barbecued Protein
|Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM)
|Rosé, Pinot Gris
|Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah
|Grenache, Rosé, Zinfandel
|Pinot Noir, Rosé, Sparkling Rosé, Pinot Gris
|Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, light or medium-body Chardonnay
|Pinot Noir, Barbera
|Pinot Noir, Grenache, GSM
|Grenache, GSM, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel
Now that you're an expert, it's time to fire up the 'cue and pour a glass. Have fun grilling!