Pairings: The Great American Barbecue

Pairings: The Great American Barbecue

It’s not the common wisdom, but wine and barbecue can go surprisingly well together.

I wasn’t born into the world of barbecue. I didn’t grow up in Texas, the low country of South Carolina, Memphis, or even Kansas City, my adopted second home. No, none of those bastions of barbecue even entered my consciousness until I was well into my adulthood. Real barbecue just sort of snuck up on me. Arriving in Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas) as a television journalist ten years ago, I wondered what city could possibly support this many barbecue restaurants. And, what the heck were they serving anyway? I mean, growing up in Chicago, barbecue meant slabs of parboiled baby back ribs slathered in a sweet, sticky sauce. They’re okay, but hardly enticing enough to warrant a barbecue joint on nearly every corner, which is exactly what Kansas City has.

Then, it happened: an epiphany. I’m pretty sure it came while eating a combo pork and beef sandwich at Arthur Bryant’s, the holiest of all KC barbecue shrines. This wasn’t the barbecue that I’d grown up with; the meat was smoky, sweet, tender, and firm all at the same time. And the sauce was gritty and tangy, with a strong suggestion of vinegar and a mild nudge of pepper. This was barbecue. Real barbecue. Closed-pit, hickory-smoked Kansas City barbecue, and as I ate that massive sandwich, I drank my Budweiser draft and pondered, “What wine would go best with this?” That was the start of my quest: real wine matched with real barbecue.

The Kansas City Masterpiece American Royal Barbecue Contest, or the American Royal (or simply The Royal, as most locals know it), is a convention of some of the best barbecuers on the planet. They come from Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri and Kansas, of course, and from as far away as Washington and Oregon, in an attempt to smoke their way to success. These diverse and rabid smokers are also some of the most gregarious folks you will ever encounter. They’ll give you the shirt off their backs, and the ribs off their smoker, if your timing’s right. But I can safely say that almost to the man, woman, and child, they don’t give a lick about wine.

That’s what has made my mission even more satisfying. Over the years, I’ve gotten these beer and whiskey purists to speak such foreign words as Shiraz and Zinfandel, and sip (with a wary eye) beverages from Rioja and Tuscany. And you know what? They liked ’em. They lapped ’em up, and even admitted, albeit grudgingly, that the wines actually made their precious ‘cue taste even better.
Three elements are paramount in matching wine with any barbecue: the smoky flavor, and the type and the amount of sauce or dry rub used in the preparation. The smoke can have a tendency to overpower a lighter wine, while the sauce, even the sweeter varieties, can dry a wine out and make it seem awfully austere.

With those factors in mind, my wines of choice for nearly all barbecue have a couple of things in common: They’re all pretty much gushing with fruit, and they’re generally not overly oaky nor overtly tannic.

Both white and light red wines can go with barbecued chicken or pork shoulder. I don’t find that Chardonnays—even unoaked, nonmalolactic versions—work very well with these meats; they just seem to fight with the sauce. I do, however, really like Chardonnay-Sémillon blends with barbecue; there’s something about the Sémillon on the midpalate that takes the edge off the Chardonnay flavors and flattens things out a bit. Another option for white-wine boosters would be Pinot Gris—wines that are a bit smoky to begin with and have just the right weight and fruit to do battle with the sauce or rub. If you pick up a few bottles from Alsace and Oregon; you’re bound to find a wine or two that suits the food and your palate.

You can also find red wines that work with the lighter barbecue categories, generally lighter-styled wines. The fruit-forward village wines from Beaujolais work really well, and for a little more structure (and not much more money) you can step up the ladder to the Beaujolais crus. For a more aromatic, flowery Beaujolais, try Fleurie. If you want something with a little more heft, opt for Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent. All of the above wines have enough fruit to stand up to the spice and smoke of the barbecue, and none have the type of tannins that will do battle with your ‘cue.

Ribs is perhaps my favorite barbecue category, and the easiest to approximate on my humble gas grill. In Kansas City, they use pork spareribs, not baby backs, but it’s not so much the type of ribs you use as the type of dry rub or sauce you choose that will make the difference for the wine. Generally, I prefer my sauces and rubs in the mid-range: a little zing, a dash of pepper, and a finish that leaves you with some feeling in your lips and on your tongue. My wine choices here also fall in the middle: good fruit, nice balance, but nothing from the in-your-face monster category. I have two favorite wine categories for my ribs: Tuscan and Rioja. Chianti Classico works nicely and, moving south in Tuscany to the Montalcino region, I’d con- centrate on the lighter Rossos rather than the bigger Brunellos. Not only are they fruitier and less tannic, which generally makes them better foil for the barbecue, you’ll probably have a hard time convincing yourself to shell out 50 or 60 bucks for a Brunello and then pouring it with a backyard barbecue. As for Italy’s neighbors across the Mediterranean, the wines of Rioja are terrific with a wide range of grilled and smoked foods. There’s just something about that dusty, plummy flavor you get from Tempranillo that works really well.

The other most commonly barbecued meats—beef and sausage—are often complemented by the same types of wines: a bit fuller, a bit richer, a bit bigger in style and substance. And since barbecue is the ultimate expression of American cuisine, here’s where we finally get around to talking about some American wines—Zinfandel and fuller-bodied Merlots—as well as the specialty of another barbecuing nation, Australian Shiraz.

Zinfandel and Shiraz are perhaps the two best barbecue wines, period. They seem to have a chameleon-like ability to change and adapt to the flavors on the plate, and a weight and taste-profile that aims to please just about everyone.



Barbecued Baby Back Ribs
Wine suggestions: Nicely balanced, unpretentious Tuscan wines are a great match with barbecued ribs. I particularly enjoy Antinori’s Santa Cristina and Peppoli. Other good choices are Ruffino’s Chianti Classico, Castello di Gabbiano, Castello di Brolio, Fontodi, Badia a Coltibuono, and Monsanto. Rosso di Montalcino also goes well with ribs; try the Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, Altesino’s Rosso di Montalcino or lower-priced Rosso di Altesino, or Caparzo Rosso di Montalcino. Rioja is another suitable match. My preferences run toward the reservas rather than the crianzas. Try the Marqués de Cáceres or my new personal favorite, Muga.

  • 3 2-pound racks of pork loin ribs, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons garlic salt
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1 tablespoon onion salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground celery seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1-2 cups apple juice

Trim excess fat from ribs; remove membrane from back of each rack. Sprinkle both sides of ribs with a mixture of garlic salt, paprika, onion salt, sage, celery seeds and cayenne. Place ribs on grill rack in covered grill with water pan. Cook with lid down over medium-hot coals for 4 hours, turning after 11/2 hours. Baste every hour with apple juice. Serves 6.


Barbecued Chicken
Wine suggestions: Light reds, as well as whites, can go with barbecued chicken and pork. I favor any of the cru offerings of the Beaune négociant Louis Jadot, but my two favorites with barbecue are the Château de Bellevue Morgon and the Domaine de Monnet Brouilly.

  • 2 31/2 -pound chickens
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato juice
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Rinse chickens and pat dry. Cut into pieces. Pour mixture of tomato juice, onion, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, cumin, garlic powder, lemon pepper, and hot pepper sauce over chicken in sealable plastic bag; seal. Marinate in refrigerator for 12 hours, turning occasionally. Drain, reserving marinade. Arrange chicken, with no pieces touching, on grill rack in covered grill with water pan. Grill with lid down over indirect heat for 1 hour; baste with reserved marinade. Turn chicken. Grill for 1 to 11/2 hours longer or until cooked through. Serves 8.


Honey-Glazed Chicken
Wine suggestions: In tasting my way through a bunch of wines to go with barbecued chicken and pork, two rose to the top of the list: the Lindemans Chardonnay-Sémillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley, and Columbia Crest’s version from Washington. Both wines are fine on their own, but they really take a shine to the barbecue. Another good choice is Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris from Alsace, like Domaines Schlumberger’s version, my personal favorite, tend to have more class and breeding, while the Pinot Gris from Oregon are fruitier and more straightforward—actually an advantage when pairing them with barbecue. I like King Estate’s Pinot Gris, which comes in both a regular and a reserve bottling.

  • 4 pounds chicken pieces
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 tablespoons prepared mustard
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Rinse chicken and pat dry. Heat honey, mustard, butter and Worcestershire sauce in saucepan until blended, stirring occasionally. Arrange dark meat pieces on grill; cover. Grill over medium-hot coals for 15 minutes, turning once. Add white meat pieces to grill. Grill for 15 to 20 minutes longer or until cooked through, turning occasionally. Baste with honey mixture during last 10 minutes of cooking process. Serves 6.



Barbecued Flank Steak
Although brisket is the most classic beef barbecue category (most of the cuts used will serve 30 to 40 people), other cuts of meat can take to the barbecue. For smaller cuts, the tenderizing comes up front, with long marinating periods and a grilled finish, as with this steak classic.

Wine suggestions: Gallo Frei Ranch Zinfandel and Chateau Souverain Dry Creek Valley Zin both make a nice complement to barbecued beef. For Merlot I suggest going upscale, to a Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain or an Arrowood Merlot. And for Shiraz, try the Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz, Magill Estate Shiraz, or Banrock Station Shiraz.

  • 1 11/2-pound flank steak
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Score flank steak 1/8-inch deep on each side in diamond pattern, using a sharp knife. Place in glass dish. Pour mixture of remaining ingredients over steak, turning to coat. Marinate, covered, in refrigerator for 24 hours, turning occasionally. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Drain, reserving marinade. Bring reserved marinade to a boil in saucepan; strain into another saucepan. Keep warm over low heat. Grill steak over hot coals for 4 to 5 minutes per side or until done to taste. Slice steak cross-grain into thin strips. Serve topped with warm marinade. Serves 4.


BBQ Salmon
Fish falls into the “other” category, not always part of barbecue contests. This one earns the name barbecue for its marinade and relatively slow covered cooking.

Wine suggestion: Pinot Noir with salmon may be a truism, but it’s never more true than when pairing a good fruity Pinot Noir with this slightly smoky, spicy version. Try an Oregon Pinot Noir from the superb 1998 vintage.

  • 8 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons minced sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 11/2-pound salmon fillet

Sprinkle garlic with salt in shallow dish; mash together with blade of knife. Combine with parsley, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil in bowl; mix well. Let stand, covered, in refrigerator for 8 hours or longer. With sharp knife cut 2 lengthwise slits into but not through salmon skin. Spread half the garlic mixture over fillet and into slits. Place salmon skin-side down on greased grill rack in covered grill. Grill with lid down over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes; spread with remaining garlic mixture. Cook with lid down over medium heat for 15 more minutes or until fish flakes easily. Serves 4.

Dave Eckert is the producer/creator/host of the PBS-TV series Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert.
Recipes are from The Kansas City Barbeque Society Cookbook, 3rd edition, published by The Kansas City Barbeque Society, Kansas City, Missouri, tel. 800/963-KCBS or 816/765-5891. $19.95 hardcover, $14.95 softcover.

Published on August 1, 2000

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