Outdoor grills are capable of miraculous transformations. On the plus side, they can turn humdrum beef, pork, chicken, fish, hamburger and even hot dogs into summer treats. On the minus ledger, the smoky flavors they impart to food can wreak havoc with your most treasured wines. As a result, it's not merely a bad idea to serve a cellar treasure with outdoor grilled food; it's disastrous.
Barbecued or outdoor grilled foods call for wines that are big and bold and, within reason, the bigger and bolder the better. Boatloads of exuberant, hey-look-at-me fruit should get the nod over the shy stuff.
While I'm a bit of a reactionary on the red wine with fish question, if there's ever a time for matching surf with vin rouge, it's at the grill. Even lobster, the classic match with big, buttery whites, goes better with red wine when its tender flesh has absorbed the smoky notes of hickory, grapevines or charcoal.
However, big and bold does not mean boorish. While many of the best red wines, such as Cabernet and Pinot Noir, often lose their balance when asked to bulk up enough to take on barbecue, others seem to thrive on the challenge. Perhaps the best example is Shiraz. Although Shiraz is often described as an alternative name for Syrah, this is only partly true. The Australians popularized the use of the word Shiraz to denote their home-grown Syrah, and, increasingly, Syrah made in the friendly, easy-to-imbibe Australian style is being labeled Shiraz, even if produced in California, Italy, France or elsewhere. At their best, these retain the complexity of classic Syrah, but add a smoky boldness born of ripe fruit and aging in toasty, vanillin oak barrels. This makes them an ideal match for the grill or barbecue.
The following six wines stood out in my tasting of 34 Shiraz from Australia, California, France, South America and Italy. It must be pointed out that six wines is not a particularly impressive yield. It's obvious that many wineries are jumping on the Shiraz bandwagon without providing a rich and ripe style of Syrah, let alone Shiraz. On the other hand,these are six of the best value reds I have tasted recently, offering unusual concentration and complexity in their price ranges. Prices are approximate.
Black Opal 2001 Shiraz "Barossa" ($15; Australia): This knockout bargain offers a big, plum and vanilla bouquet that leads to lush, exuberant Shiraz fruit. The wine manages to be soft and easy on the palate without being even the least bit cloying. In other words, it's a textbook Shiraz from Barossa, my favorite region for Australian Shiraz. Note: The 2001 Black Opal Barossa Shiraz is just coming on the market; if your favorite store doesn't have it, the similarly styled 2000 is recommended, though it should be drunk up by the end of the summer. Note also that Black Opal makes a slightly less expensive Shiraz with the Southeastern Australia appellation ($12). It's a nice wine, but lacks the extravagant richness that makes the Barossa offering so special.
Geyser Peak Winery 1999 Shiraz Reserve Sonoma County ($45; California): On tasting this superb, multifaceted Shiraz, no one will be surprised to discover that the guiding light at Geyser Peak for the last 15 years is an Australian, Daryl Groom, the former winemaker of Penfolds legendary Grange Hermitage. Although this may not be the best Syrah/Shiraz made in the United States, it is certainly the most Grange-like. For many, that is synonymous with the best Shiraz in the world. While this top-of-the-line Shiraz lacks the sheer mass of Grange ($150), it captures Grange 's uncanny combination of deep, hearty fruit allied to sculpted, well-ripened tannins. Complex aromas of vanilla, violets and red/black berries surge from the glass, followed on the palate by layerered Syrah fruit, highlighted by Grange-like notes of cassis and mineral and a super-long finish. This superb effort is enjoyable now, but can easily improve for five more years in the cellar.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2001 Cabernet Shiraz Merlot ($11; Australia); Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2001 Shiraz ($11; Australia): Unlike the Syrah-based wines of the Rhone, many of the best Australian Shiraz, including those made from 100 percent Shiraz, display a subtle cassis note that makes them taste as though a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon had been blended in. When this extra flavor dimension is not provided by pure Shiraz, it can be augmented by blending in a small amount of Cabernet or Merlot. Paradoxically, these blends often make better "Shiraz" than the purebreds. That is the case with these two excellent values from Wynns. While the 100 percent Shiraz is well made, fruity and very good, the Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot blend is even better, with the greater complexity and focus of a pricy Shiraz-based wine. Both are ready to drink now and offer impressive quality for the price range.
Ravenswood 2002 Shiraz Vintners Blend ($12; Australia): While the style of this wine is totally over the top, what would one expect from Ravenswood, a winery whose motto is "no wimpy wines." Shockingly, winemaker Joel Peterson abandoned California and flew to Australia to buy the grapes he needed to make the first-ever Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Shiraz. This is a big, bold, fleshy, ultra-ripe, low-acid Shiraz that calls to mind one of Ravenswood's trademark late-picked Zinfandels. While it might not belong on the table for every meal, the alcohol level is low enough (under 14 percent) to keep the wine refreshing, and the flavors are sufficiently intense and smoky to make a fine match with barbecued ribs, chicken and beef.
Jacobs Creek 2001 Reserve Shiraz ($14; Australia): While I am no fan of Jacobs Creek's $40-plus limited-release bottlings, the skills developed to make those wines have pretty clearly rubbed off on its mid-tier Reserve Shiraz, which offers tremendous value. The deep crimson color is solid to the rim, and the wine displays a harmonious nose of black pepper, charred oak and blueberries. On the palate, it is stylish and silky, with the potential to improve in the bottle for an additional two years. However, when a wine at this price is this good, why wait?
Penfolds 2001 Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz "Barossa" ($24; Australia): Although the price of this wine has crept up enough to take it out of the bargain category, it's still a terrific bottle of wine. Bin 389 is aged in the barrels used for the previous year's Grange and tastes more like Grange than any of Penfolds' other wines, including several all-Shiraz wines that cost two to three times as much. But comparisons to Grange aside, Bin 389 is one of the most consistently delightful wines but I have come across; if there have been bad vintages of this wine, I haven't tried them. The 2001 is another success, offering spicy plum and cherry fruit, full, mouth coating tannins and a terrific vanilla and cassis bouquet. Though very good to drink now, Bin 389 offers the ability to age well for three to five years in a cool cellar. Enjoy this beautiful balance wine now and over the next four to five years.