As the sun sets later and the evenings grow warmer, everyone gathers out on the patio or deck, basking in the aromas of barbecued specialties of the house. With spice rubs and a profusion of sauces to fill the air, it’s no wonder we’re drawn to the barbecue like bees to honey.
But the grill serves up such a wide range of treasures that pairing them with wine can be seen either as a challenge or an overture to your imagination. Driven by flavor accents from sauce and spice, each grilled meat could wax from one side of the wine continuum to the other. Luckily, the spirit of outdoor dining—including the tendency to serve lighter, less cerebral, beverages—simplifies the choice.
Sparkling wines beat the heat and play well with almost any grilled food. Stick to the quaffable wines like Prosecco or Cava, or maybe a light-bodied California bubbly, and leave the vintage Champagne in the cellar.
White wines are clearly suited to grilled fish and chicken, and some pork recipes, even those that call for blackened preparations or spice rubs. The high acidity in Sauvignon Blanc—or a cool Sancerre (made from the same grape)—pairs perfectly in this role. Choose a white Burgundy or another Chardonnay for the fattier fish, like tuna, trout, or rockfish. Chardonnay’s also the best pick for veggie burgers, and sometimes regular hamburgers that have a mushroom sauce.
There’s no question that rosés add lift and ‘spirit’ to casual outdoor gatherings. Served brisk and cool, these wines have a bit more acidity than white wines to battle the grilled flavors of the food. Among the easy favorites in this category are Bandol from Provence, Tavel from the Rhône Valley, and some interesting rosé experiments in California made from the Sangiovese grape.
When pork or salmon is on the menu, Pinot Noir—from Oregon, the Russian River Valley or Burgundy—is best. The richer flavors rely on the Pinot Noir for weight and texture though they would get blotted out by heavier wines like Cabernet, Petit Sirah, or Barolo. Smoked meats—especially those with a bacon accent—are also best served with Pinot Noir, playing off the smoky, tea-leaf flavors of the wine.
If you’re serving hamburgers, steak, barbecued ribs, or beef tenderloin, only the big red wines will do. Bordeaux, California Cabernet, and Barolo are perfect matches, but if the spice turns the dish hot, zero in on Zinfandel or a similarly spicy Australian Shiraz or Argentine Malbec.
The key to successful wine-food pairing for outdoor dining is simplicity. Don’t choose a wine that requires too much thought because the setting doesn’t call for that. The wines should fit the food, but they should also fit the casual mood of the gathering.
Additional advice on pairing wines with barbecue foods, alternative BBQ wine suggestions as well as wine recommendations matched to specific BBQ styles
Grilling tips and pet peeves from foodie extraordinaire David Rosengarten