By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Now that we've reached the unofficial kickoff of summer, it's time to stock your wine rack with bottles that will serve you well throughout this barbecue and grilling season.
In search of the best matches, we recently taste-tested wines by following the conventional wisdom when pairing with barbecue: Think "BBQ": big, bold and quaffable.
Big means full-bodied wines (such as shiraz/syrah or zinfandel) that can go head-to-head against this heavier style of cooking. Generally, wines with an alcohol content of more than 13 percent can be thought of as full-bodied.
Bold means young, fruit-forward, full-flavored wines that have a chance of standing up to the robust flavors of the grill, smoker and/or barbecue sauce.
Quaffable means easy-drinking, uncomplicated, affordable wines that suit the laid-back atmosphere of most cookouts.
Two basic pairing strategies can help match BBQ wines with barbecue and grilled food. The first is comparing, or seeing that what's in your glass has characteristics comparable to those of what's on your plate. (The second strategy is contrasting, which we'll get to later.)
Typically, comparing is the surefire route. Zinfandel historically has been our go-to BBQ wine -- often Rancho Zabaco or Ravenswood on a weeknight, and a special Cline or Ridge with guests. But on a recent unseasonably warm night, when we tasted a dozen wines hoping to discover a new favorite, we were disappointed to find that all the zins were so high in alcohol that they tasted "hot" on the palate and at the back of the throat. We even tried chilling them for an extra 15 minutes, which sometimes helps, but they stubbornly retained the effect. These wines couldn't be tamed by the food, either.
We also tasted several oaky chardonnays, because our previous encounters with Bernardus and Clos du Bois have proved that the flavor of wood can play deliciously off the flavor of grilled chicken. However, among the ones we taste-tested, none sang.
On a whim, we grabbed a random bottle of rosé from the refrigerator. Its soft, slightly off-dry fruity flavor was reminiscent of watermelon and strawberry juice, kind of a lightly alcoholic agua fresca. It was instantly refreshing, but we were dubious, because we typically like our rosés drier and more focused.
But then we tasted it against the grilled chicken. Nice. Against the baby back ribs. Wow! Against the baked beans, the coleslaw, the hush puppies. Yes, yes, YES!
What was this stuff?
Sauvion Rosé d'Anjou ($10), that's what: a simple bottle of rosé from the Loire, made from gamay and groslot grapes, that saved our night when a dozen other bottles we'd thought might harbor some slam-dunks were merely slammed. This is a light-bodied (only 11 percent alcohol) wine from a winemaker much better known for its Muscadet, but it outperformed every other wine that night.
It proved the validity of the second basic strategy of food and wine pairing: contrasting, or refreshing the palate with a wine that cuts through the food. Spicy food of all kinds often contrasts well with an off-dry (i.e., slightly sweet) wine, such as a rosé or Riesling in that style. Having had luck with a blended wine, we sought out other blends for our next tasting, which yielded a few standouts.
If you're a red-meat person, pour yourself a glass of Ravenswood Icon Syrah ($17). A luscious Rhone-style blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre from California, Icon boasts lively black cherry and plum flavors that stand up to sauce-laden beef ribs and brisket.
With pork, chicken or virtually anything other than red meat this summer, keep an eye out for Hogue Columbia Valley Riesling ($9). Its peaches-and-cream flavor is balanced by refreshing acidity, and the addition of Gewurztraminer grapes rounds out this off-dry Riesling blend beautifully. It stood up to every barbecue sauce we tested it with, from spicy to sweet.
If grilled fish and chicken -- as well as refreshingly fruity, floral and unusual wines -- are your thing, you must try Conundrum ($27) white table wine from California. Its proprietary blend of undisclosed proportions of different grapes is the puzzle behind its name. We've noticed Conundrum on the wine list of upscale barbecue restaurants, so we're not alone in admiring its food-friendliness with this style of cooking. Its price tag means we save it for dinner with guests, who invariably thank us.
Buying a bottle of each of these for a total of $63 (or less, because you can often find them on sale) is a great investment in your pairing pleasure with the bolder flavors you'll encounter over the next three months. Enjoy the summer; you can thank us in September.