By Whitney Butler
Modern grill masters have pushed grilling beyond the threshold of mere hamburgers and hot dogs to a creative space that encourages all things nontraditional. It would be prudent to pair beverages accordingly—if only for experimental reasons—and wine offers more than a congenial twist.
It’s not uncommon to see hot grills and cold beers together—the summer duo has certainly earned its place among tradition—yet discerning cooks may prefer the less obvious choice at their next cookout.
Pairing wine with grilled fare is becoming increasingly popular among flame aficionados looking for ways to complement new recipes featuring the barbecue. But what about all those pairing rules? Is there a secret to pairing wines with grilled food?
Fortunately it’s not a secret, and we’ve got a great list of tips to get you going this grilling season, as well as popular varietal recommendations for common grilled foods. But first…
To understand why certain wines work better than others, let’s consider the science behind high and fast heat.
Grilling is a form of conduction, when heat is transferred to the food by direct contact with the heat source. Grill marks are a good example of conduction. Because the heat energy is happening so quickly, certain flavor profiles occur naturally: starches in vegetables and the fats in meats, poultry and seafood caramelize and taste sweeter, while smoky flavors are developed from char and the smoke itself.
Regardless of what you’re grilling, these two profiles will be characteristic and should act as a starting point for your pairings.
The trick to this pairing is balance, so finding complementary flavor profiles is key. There’s nothing subtle about grill marks—so don’t be afraid to go bold.
Wines that highlight rich fruit and oak notes are your best bet at balancing the caramelized and smoky flavors of grilled food. Consider Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel for red; and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Rosé for white.
For rich and fatty dishes like steak or pork chops (even grilled salmon), cleanse the palate with crisp, dry wines higher in tannins (Cabernet Sauvignon would be a good choice), which helps to refresh and complement the meal. High acidity will work the same way.
If you’ve got a heavy hand with the seasoning, particularly on meat or pork, consider a wine with peppery flavors like a Zinfandel, which will work beautifully with char and smoke.
Breaking the Rules
There are always exceptions to the rules, and wine pairing is no different. Take spicy grilled food, for example, which can be challenging for even experienced sommeliers. For spicy foods like Cajun-style shrimp or hot sausage, look for contrast with a wine containing sweet fruit flavors and low tannins. A Riesling or Rosé would be lovely in this paring. Stick with lighter bodied wines.
If all else fails, the most important thing to remember: drink what you like. Grilling is often a communal activity and should be enjoyed each bite and every sip—not spent worrying about the wine menu. Plus, pairing wine and grilled food is an opportunity to experiment with new flavor profiles in ways least familiar to the senses.
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