I’m not a math wiz, but there is one equation I know by heart. Meat + Fire = Beer. Nothing goes better with barbecue than an ice-cold pilsner. So that’s it, article over. Enjoy the end of your summer…. I mean, unless of course, you want to take a minute to explore the option of wine next to charred meat?
I know, I can already hear your objections, “barbecue is simple comfort food and should be enjoyed an equally comforting beverage” or “wine is for meals eaten on white table cloths.” Ah, but I came ready for your qualms. First, meat that’s covered in spices then slow roasted, charred or smoked takes on a depth of flavor that invites an equally complex beverage pairing. Second, a new, younger, more open-minded consumer has torn down the pretentious misconceptions of wine being only appropriate for a fine dinning experience. And trust me, there are some great options to reach for when the Weber and charcoal comes out.
The first wine I ever had at a backyard barbecue was Beaujolais. Around 10 years ago, this varietal didn’t have the best reputation. Back then, my mentor David Gordon (Wine Director at Tribeca Grill) half-joked with me that Beaujolais were best served with hamburgers (a lowly wine for a lowly slab of meat). On a lark, I actually tried the pairing and, I’ll be damned, it worked. Like a hamburger, Beaujolais are juicy and rich, with a touch of earthiness. And fortunately, in the last decade we have seen significant improvement in the Beaujolais imported to the States. These wines have more structure, minerality and intensity than the “Nouveau Beaujolais” that for generations sullied the varietal’s name. Now David’s words look prescient. In fact, I crave hamburgers and Beaujolais all winter long. It gets so bad at times that I’ve been known to grab a bottle of Georges Descombes Morgon and head to New York City’s burger mecca Corner Bistro.
Beaujolais won’t work across all barbecue entrees though. When serving up ribs, you want a wine that complements the smoke, spice and sweetness of a great rack. Which is why I go for a wine often characterized by aromatics of bacon fat, black pepper, and blueberry: Syrah. Syrah vines can be found in every corner of the wine world. I personally gravitate to the cooler regions where the wines retain acidity and freshness that balance out the full-bodied texture of the wines. That acidity also comes in handy to cut through the fattiness of the ribs. An option from the old world would be Eric Texier Brézème from the Northern Rhône. If you prefer an of the beaten path option, consider Tandem from the hills of Rommani in Morocco and for an American selection, try Wind Gap Sonoma Coast.
Pairing wine with the granddaddy of the backyard barbecue, steaks, is about finding a balance of tannin and fat. The higher the fat content of the cut, the higher tannin wine you should put next to it. Tannin exists in all red wines—it comes from the skins of the grapes—so the thicker the skin the higher the tannin. Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape, which is why the wines are lighter in color and have fine soft tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon has very thick skins, so the wines have much firmer tannins, making it ideal for steak pairing. With leaner cuts like strip you can rely on riper, fruitier Cabs that Napa Valley produces so well, like the wines from Storybook Mountain in the Mayacamas Range. For Fattier cuts, like rib-eye, something from Bordeaux is an ideal fit. Château Lalande-Borie located in Saint-Julien, a Cabernet blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, works beautifully.
So maybe my math skills are a little off and it won’t just be a cold beer at backyard barbecues over Labor Day Weekend. Wine can be just as accessible and casual as beer, but also give an interesting, unexpected and delicious twist to your cookout. And don’t worry, you can still look like a real man with a hand blown crystal wine glass in one hand and some barbecue tongs in the other.