Awhile back, my best friend said he wanted a “big green egg” and my first thought was that he must’ve fallen asleep watching Game of Thrones, only to later realize that what he wanted was a concrete, egg-shaped barbecue. The fact that he was willing to spend many hundreds of dollars for an additional outdoor cooking appliance that is neither simple nor convenient is somewhat perplexing to me (for the record, I am not an accomplished grill-master). But it does illustrate that the noble art of barbecuing has progressed far beyond the humble charcoal briquette. And what good fortune that there is a wealth of good wines ready and waiting to be paired with grilled foods of all sorts.
To help narrow down what works, it’s best to focus on a few grapes and a few regions. In general, most wines for barbecue should be red ones. The tannins that are responsible for that mouth-drying bitterness in wine actually enhance steak, softening the fat in the meat to help release its flavour. While the adage of white wine with white meat and red with red isn’t quite the hard rule it used to be, as a general guideline, it does work.
While we Calgarians might like to think we have the barbecue down pat, it’s the Argentineans who are the real aficionados. The Argentine barbecue, or asado, is an all-day affair of wood-fired grills and an assortment of meats suitable for a culture that consumes more than 50 kilograms of beef per annum. (By comparison, Canadians consume about 25 kg of beef per person per year.) Want to know what they drink at asados (besides beer)? Malbec. Argentina’s flagship grape variety is dry, full-bodied and with more than enough tannin to stand up to any cut.
Zinfandel is also a strong performer for grilled meats of all kinds, and especially shines with richer or sweeter sauces. Loaded with intense – often jammy – berry fruit and plenty of alcohol, it pairs very well with lean dishes, so if you’re one of those heathens that cuts the extra fat off your steaks, consider a zinfandel.
Other red grapes such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah are also well-suited pairings with grilled cuisine, though certainly keep an eye out for bottles from countries known for their carnivorous reputation, such as Portugal, the U.S., Australia, Canada and South America.
Which brings us to the age-old question: “I’ve been invited to a barbecue, what should I bring?” Well, you should know your hosts better than I do, but considering most barbecues are casual affairs, the wine should also be on the casual side. Now is not the time to bring a well-aged Bordeaux from the darkest corners of your cellar (unless that’s your thing). Rather, it’s the time to bring a well-thought-out bottle that’s ready to drink. Take heart that between $15 and $25, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of good wines, especially if you avoid overly commercial wines. Find a decent shop that sells wine, find a person on the floor who knows the difference between Hochtaler and Hermitage, and try something a little off the beaten path.
6 wines to try when barbecuing
PB Hein 2014 Celebration Red, California
A dynamic blend of grenache and syrah with about 10 per cent zinfandel and a smattering of petit syrah, this is a perfect wine for special occasions when the grill is fired up. Raspberry and brambly berry fruits with cherry cola, spice, and a little gingerbread too. Great with ribs (glorious ribs!) drenched in sauce. $22.
Yalumba 2011 Patchwork Shiraz, Barossa, Australia
Shiraz is about the best go-to wine for a barbecue, and Yalumba’s Patchwork is a cut above the rest. Ripe berry fruit with undercurrents of blueberry and plum under those jammy cherry characters. It’s big, naturally, but well-balanced with milder herbal flavours on the palate appearing and plenty of acid suitable for burgers, steaks or just relaxing on the deck. $29.
Di Arie 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, El Dorado, California
Cabernet sauvignon is still the king of red grapes, known for showcasing the place it was grown, but also for its high quality when grown by skillful hands. Di Arie’s has the classic nose of cherries and plum with bell pepper, spice box and cedar. Serve with well-aged steaks grilled to perfection. $52.
Pierre Henri Morel 2012 Signargues Ctes du Rhone Village, France
France’s Rhone Valley is a terrific place to find well-made wines of excellent value. Based around grenache and syrah with generous fruits, a touch of spice and dried herbs, it offers good complexity on the palate and finishes with a slightly earthy tone. Should handle sausages with flair, or larger cuts of meat. $20.
Fontanafredda 2015 Gavi di Gavi, Piedmont, Italy
The best things at the barbecue aren’t always red, like this little gem from Italy’s Piedmont region. Dry and remarkably intense, this mineral-driven, tropical and silky white would be absolutely perfect with seared scallops or garlicky barbecued shrimp. $21.
Zuccardi Q 2013 Malbec, Uco Valley, Argentina
One of the up-and-coming wine makers in Argentina, Sebastien Zuccardi is identifying new terroirs, soils and sites to make the very best malbec. Incredibly floral on the nose with deep layers of fruit and herb leaf, it’s chewy on the palate with muscular tannins, yet remarkably elegant. Bored of malbec? This might change your mind. Try this the next time you fire up the smoker. $25.
Try these pairings at local restaurants
Bookers BBQ and Crab Shack – Brisket and Merlot
There’s nothing like the tender, flavourful, stick-to-your-ribs deliciousness of a good brisket. Try matching Bookers’ brisket with Cedar Creek merlot ($48). The Okanagan is making some of the finest merlots out there with ripe fruits and just the right amount of table-pleasing tannins.
Pampa – Meat skewers and Malbec
The skewers at Pampa Brazillian barbecue are a carnivore’s dream. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the top sirloin (or the garlic rump steak) is always a treat, especially with a malbec from Catena ($99 by the bottle) – a classic that’s well-suited for a meaty dinner.
The Nash – Flat iron Beef and Zinfandel
Zinfandel loves a juicy, well-seasoned, seared meat. Match The Nash’s flat iron with the Dry Creek old-vine zinfandel ($13 glass; $52 bottle). Older vines typically have greater complexity and Dry Creek’s deliver spicy, brambly fruit perfect for a nice cut.