By Laura Burgess
There’s room for debate in the BBQ tradition, but there’s one thing we know can unite BBQ enthusiasts from coast to coast: wine. Whether your coals are covered in classic burgers and brats, smoked ribs, or a vegetarian feast, there’s a bottle to match perfectly.
The path to reaching food-pairing Nirvana is about balancing the trio of spice, fat, and flavor that exists on the BBQ spectrum. The best wines will cut through the grease; tame the flames of spicy sauces; and accent the smokey, tangy, or sweet sauces that accompany the flame-grilled centerpieces.
It’s always important to consider the major flavor elements of anything sizzling on the grill. For instance, is your sauce a North Carolina-style mustard-based elixir, or is tangy vinegar a key ingredient? Perhaps Mesquite is playing a role? Look for wines that offer similar descriptions to highlight those flavors. For example, a smoky New York steak would match with a similarly smoky Shiraz, while honey mustard grilled chicken would be accented beautifully by a bright and tangy Chardonnay that brings out the zippy flavors of both the sauce and the wine simultaneously.
White wine and BBQ? You read that right. Full-bodied Chardonnay is an excellent match for barbeque, especially when poultry and seafood sit atop the coals. Bold, full-bodied examples aged in New Oak are ideal with BBQ because their bold flavors and toasty, nutty notes can stand up to the intense flavors of BBQ classics. Look for bottlings from California to make this pairing sing.
Red wines are a more traditional choice for BBQ, and if your grill is covered edge to edge with variety, nothing tops ripe, berry-scented Zinfandels as an all-around MVP. This full-bodied grape makes wines that naturally balance the richness of grilled meats like steaks and burgers, while fruity flavors harmonize with sweet and smokey BBQ sauces. Zinfandel also has lower tannins than heavy hitting reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, which means Zin also matches well with lighter dishes on the grill as well, like chicken, hot dogs, or portabella mushroom burgers. But beware, Zinfandel is notorious for creating high alcohol wines, which exacerbate the heat of chiles, black pepper, and other spicy foods. So, if your BBQ favorites are flecked with chiles or black pepper, look for a lower alcohol wine, around 13% ABV or less, to tame the flames.
For BBQ enthusiasts whose grills and smokers are heaped with hearty, slowly smoked meats and ribs, few wines dare to pair with BBQ as well as inky, rich Australian Shiraz. The grape is synonymous with “Syrah,” made famous in the Rhône Valley of France and California, but Australian versions—ripened in the intense heat of the Land Down Under—bring a mix of smoky aromatics, peppery spice, and plum flavors to the table, which absolutely sing alongside smoked dishes. Shiraz also comes with firm tannins, which cut through fatty meats like ribeyes and pulled pork, making it a perfect choice for traditional smoked meats.