Grilling with Wine 101
February 1, 2012
When most people consider pairing beverages with their grilled and barbecued dishes, they automatically revert to the classic cooler full of beer and soda. But today we’re here to broaden that thought process by turning to a panel of experts who will guide the Grilling.com community through the basics pairing wine with your favorite outdoor dishes.
For some, the words “grilling” and “barbecue” mean hot dogs and hamburgers but I always say that there is virtually nothing that can be created in the kitchen that can’t be done bigger and bolder in the backyard. This means everything from stuffed veal chops to oysters Rockefeller to beef Wellington and beyond. As such, the possibilities for creative wine pairings seem just as limitless.
First of all, perhaps you could each provide a brief overview of your backgrounds?
Peter Mondavi Jr., Charles Krug Winery: I’m the proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, which I run with my brother Marc and my dad, Peter Mondavi Sr. Charles Krug just celebrated its 150th anniversary, and the winery has been in the family almost 70 years, since 1943.
Gwendolyn Osborn, Wine.com: I have been working in the wine business for almost 10 years, though I grew up in a wine-loving household, so I’d been “exposed” for a while. I began at Wine Spectator, first in advertising and then in education. After moving to California, I earned my Diploma from the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and have been working with Wine.com for the past 4+ years, where I now go under the fairly vague title of Director of Content & Education.
Mark Bright, Saison restaurant: I am the Sommelier and a Partner of Saison, a Two Michelin Star restaurant located in the Mission District of San Francisco, CA. I was honored as one of the “Best New Sommeliers” in 2005 by Wine and Spirits and was featured in Wine Spectator as a “New Wine Turk” in 2006.
Do you do much grilling and barbecuing at home?
Mondavi: At home, I grill-roast in an oak barrel stave-fired outdoor oven. At the winery, it’s on a mesquite-fired grill.
Osborn: In the summer, we grill/BBQ nearly every night. My husband runs the grill for meat and sometimes veggies, while I direct the sides from the indoor kitchen. With two young kids, most of our grilling is fairly basic, but we look forward to experimenting more when time allows!
Bright: I did when I used to live in Las Vegas, but I never really had space here in San Francisco until recently.
Now for someone who is thinking about pairing a wine with grilled and barbecued food for the first time, do you have any simple words of advice?
Mondavi: Sweet and/or spicy/smoky foods scream out Zinfandel to me. Cedar plank Salmon (my cedar plank is mostly charcoal by the end of the 15 minutes of cooking despite soaking in water for hours) does surprisingly well with our Merlot. Pure beef cuts, sirloin, rib-eyes, etc. work best with big Cabs or Cab blends like our Vintage Selection Cabernet or our Bordeaux-style blend, Generations. In the end, don’t get too hung up on specific pairings; I sometimes will open a couple bottles and see what I and my guests like best. And they don’t always agree! Everyone is different, which means whatever you like best is the best pairing in the end.
Osborn: Yes! Matching wine and food is often about weight. Lighter wines with lighter foods, heavier wines with heavier foods – this prevents one from over powering the other. Grilling often adds a smoky or sometimes caramelized flavor to the foods, giving it a heavier weight. When it comes to grilling, go for a slightly heavier wine than you normally would with the same food when steamed, sautéed or baked. For BBQ food, my main advice is look at the sauce! Match the wine with the sauce…
Bright: You can use a whole range of wines for what you are cooking. I prefer Syrah over anything and Mouvedre based wines, meaty wines with flavors of smoke and bacon.
Are there any specific types of wines or flavor profiles that would be considered safe choices for most grilled dishes, say a bolder, more assertive wine or perhaps something a bit fruitier?
Mondavi: I say match boldness in the food with boldness in the wine, finesse with finesse, and spice with spice. Don’t be afraid to experiment and go with your preference.
Osborn: I think in general, fruit-forward wines are a good way to go. Avoid wines that are overly acidic or tannic when you’ve got a sweet sauce, and look for lots of fruit. A rack of ribs slathered in spicy/sweet BBQ sauce, needs a wine with equally “sweet” aka RIPE fruit to hold up to it. A wine with too much tannin or acid may seem harsh. That said, if you have lemon-y fish or shrimp on the grill, you need acid! Big steaks with pepper? Tannic reds! So there is no cut and dry. BUT, if I had any go to wine with grilled food, I’d go Viognier for whites and Zinfandel for reds.
Bright: Rhone Valley Reds, Santa Barbara Syrahs and Sonoma Syrahs, southern French Syrah and Mouvedre blends.
If I had to make a choice, would you say white or red when serving a smoky, favor packed dish like pork ribs or beef brisket?
Mondavi: For me, definitely red but I wouldn’t say no to trying a big, over-the-top Chard (a style I don’t stock in my wine cellar, though).
Osborn: I think I’d go with red here. You can serve a white – absolutely. But as a personal choice, I love matching up those sweet and smoky BBQ flavors with a sweet and smoky reds, particularly Zinfandel.
Bright: If the dish has a really sweet glaze you can use a sweeter Riesling and aromatic wines like Viognier, but stick with the smoke flavored wines, pork ribs get Grenache, beef gets syrah.
Speaking of individual dishes, obviously the proper wine will depend somewhat on the cooking method (hot and fast versus low and slow), the flavor profile (sweet versus heat), and the actual fruit, vegetable or protein being prepared. Perhaps you could give your top line thoughts on a few primary categories?
Grilled beef (steaks, beef sate, fajitas, etc):
Mondavi: Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Generations (our family’s Bordeaux-style blend), or our Napa Valley Zinfandel if the meat is spicy.
Osborn: I love a good Cabernet here. Great ones from California, Australia, South Africa, South America or France would do well. Some good tannins to match with the fat on the beef. That said, particularly with the fajitas (because of the spice), you need some big fruit to match up to it!
Bright: Syrah, Cabernet based and bigger varietals.
Grilled chicken (legs, thighs, stuffed breasts, etc.):
Mondavi: Our Carneros-Napa Valley Chardonnay has a great balance of vanilla, peach, brown sugar and citrus and great body to stand up to the bigger flavors you get in grilling. The brown sugar and tropical fruit flavors are wonderful with grilled flavors too. For me, I would also try a Pinot Noir.
Osborn: Here’s where some whites would do well – a nice Viognier would be a great match, though because chicken is mild, you can also go with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or even a Beaujolais Cru (Gamay grape).
Bright: Smoky and bigger style pinots.
Grilled seafood (salmon, shrimp, oysters, etc):
Mondavi: Sauvignon Blanc and Chard, maybe Pinot Noir–I’d open it and see!
Osborn: Since fish is usually lighter, go with a lighter wine. Salmon is great with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, while shellfish like shrimp and oysters are a bit briny and need some acid! Sauvignon Blanc is ideal here.
Bright: Once again stick with Rieslings, sweet sauces – sweet wine, no sugars then you want a drier style, Austrian, Alsace, or salmon you can go lighter pinot.
Grilled vegetables (asparagus, portabella mushrooms, cauliflower, etc):
Mondavi: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir and maybe our Napa Valley Merlot for the rich items like Portobello mushrooms.
Osborn: Vegetables are tough wine matches in general, but Sauvignon Blanc often does well with them (especially asparagus, always difficult to match with wine), portabella mushrooms are earthy and need an earthy wine – Pinot Noir is perfect, as is Carmenere (from Chile).
Bright: Here you can go the entire line of wines depending on what you are cooking or type of that vegetable – matsutake with chardonnay, meaty portabello with a pinot, asparagus with a Loire Valley white…the list can go on forever.
Spicy food (hot wings, sausage, stuffed jalapenos, etc.):
Mondavi: I personally gravitate to our Zinfandel for the zesty fruitiness. A sweeter wine also works great with spicy stuff.
Osborn: BIG FRUIT! Go with Zinfandel, super ripe Pinot Noir (think Pinot from central California) if you like reds. If you prefer whites, a refreshing but slightly off-dry Riesling will help cool the spice. Seems like an odd combination, but that slight sweetness in the wine can cool down the heat!
Bright: Sweet wines like Spätlese level German Rieslings from warmer vintages and recent vintages.
Slow smoked foods (brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, etc):
Mondavi: Pinot Noir, Merlot and Generations.
Osborn: This is where foods can get smoky. Certain regions, like South America and South Africa, produce wines that have a smoky element. I’d go with a Cabernet, Syrah or red blend from South Africa, a Cabernet or Malbec from Argentina or a Carmenere from Chile. All have wonderful smoky undertones with some good fruit and structure to match.
Bright: Wines that have a natural fatness to them to begin with. Perhaps a ripe California pinot and syrah.
Grilled fruits and desserts:
Mondavi: Zinfandel Port!
Osborn: I have always wanted to grill my dessert but never have! I think a slightly sweet sparkling wine, like Moscato, is a great match for this, or maybe an ice wine or Sauternes. Nothing too heavy – Port or other fortified wines – but a lighter fruit-driven sweet wines.
Bright: It depends on the fruit. Once again you have a world of options and flavors.
Are there any particular wine brands that you would recommend to someone just dipping their foot in to the paring pool, preferably ones that won’t break the bank?
Mondavi: Our Charles Krug-Peter Mondavi Family line of wines begins at $18 through the low-mid $20’s. It’s a very reasonable price for beautifully balanced wines from great Napa Valley vineyards. I don’t think readers will be disappointed.
Osborn: Since I love Zinfandel so much with BBQ, I’ll suggest some brands for that: Ravenswood, Bogle, Zinfandelic and Cline. Malbec, from producers like Catena and Crios are great matches for those meats. Yalumba makes delicious Viognier. For South African reds, try Ken Forrester or Indaba. In Chile, Santa Rita and Concha y Toro have great values.
Bright: Cannonball Cabernet, Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone, Clos du Caillou Cotes du Rhone, Thierry and Pascale Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage, Ogier Rosine (northern rhone), Samsara Syrah.
Finally, any other words of advice for me and the other barbecue wine novices out there?
Mondavi: Don’t fuss too much over the wine choices, and enjoy a glass while you grill!
Osborn: While it’s always great to have a winning match, it’s much easier than you think. Most foods and wines go fairly well together. Drink what you like is the most important part – you’ll find a great match somehow!
Thanks again for your time and insight and hopefully we can connect again soon for some menu pairings!
- Clint Cantwell, Grilling.com Editor