What to Drink With BBQ This isn’t just beer food, folks. Wine works just as well, if not better.
People often ask me what wine I like with barbecue (probably because I’ve written books on both) but I’ll preface my observations with a reminder that barbecue has no rules, so follow your own instincts. Also, I need to reassure against the false notion that barbecue and wine aren’t a fit. Barbecue’s dark secret is that beer is often a terrible match. Beer’s main attraction as an “ice-cold” refresher makes sense in barbecue’s summertime sweet spot of hot, southern states. But taste doesn’t lie, and hops clash with smoky sweetness. Also, barbecue comes in many styles—from Carolina to Texas and beyond—and these days it’s common to find all on the same plate, making wine’s diversity an asset.
First, I’ll detail wines I avoid. That list begins with oak. A common opinion holds that, because wood is a central seasoning in both barbecue and wine, there’s a natural affinity. Not true. Wood flavor in wine (toasty, caramelized, sometimes burnt, sometimes raw) is nothing like the fully combusted wood smoke that you find in barbecue—and not compatible. High-alcohol wines, even if well-balanced, tend to fail. The size and richness of both wine and food create an off-putting turf war in the mouth. All this means buh-bye to much Shiraz, Zinfandel, oaky Rioja, and high-alcohol Châteauneuf-du-Pape (alcohol exaggerates the ‘heat’ of spice in food). Wines with lots of “green” flavors are also out (see hoppy beers). To assign colors, the flavors of barbecue are orange, brown, and red—warm, sweet, spice-driven—and green clashes like a bad Christmas sweater. Adios Vinho Verde, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and many Loire reds.
So, what works? On the white spectrum, Riesling. We’re talking pig cooked in a style with Teutonic origins—unctuous slow-cooked ribs and fork-tender piles of pulled pork—so Riesling is a natural. Plus, it plays nice with the vinegar- and mustard-based sauces people like with pork, not to mention coleslaw. Champagne also works well, if not too toasty. Krug is out, but fresh and fruity sparklers, especially rosé, work great. Other high-acid, less aromatic whites (Savoie; Albariño or Godello; Chardonnay) are fine, if not spectacular.
Reds are more finicky than you’d expect: barbecue’s intensity demands good, well-made wines to balance it. The pepperiness of most barbecue rubs, as well as the savor of smoke, really embraces fresh fruit—so fruity wines that aren’t overripe are best. The wine needs to be focused and dense with flavor to stand up to the power of the meat. I happen to love a tight, compact Syrah. It connects with barbecue naturally on pepper, smoke, iron, blood. Pair new school American or Aussie Shiraz or a Northern Rhône red with brisket and find joy. Cabernet Sauvignon fits, too, provided it avoids the above pitfalls. Classically styled Napa Cabs are great, even with some age. Pinot can work, but only if it’s tight and dense. No blowsy under- or overripe stuff. In all reds, don’t fear tannins—the fat and gelatin in good meat handle them with ease. Lighter, high-acid (i.e. fat-cutting) reds are also great with barbecue—Etna Rosso and Cru Beaujolais, especially. Lambrusco is terrific.
Some final tips. This may be obvious, but serve reds at cellar temperature or with a slight chill, especially in warm weather, and keep them gently on ice. Also, barbecue is finger food: avoid your fine stems unless you’re confident scraping dried sauce off Zaltos. Finally, embrace the casualness of barbecue. Don’t be afraid to bounce around from white to red and back. Barbecue has no rules and neither should your wine drinking. Cheers!
Jordan Mackay is a James-Beard-award winning writer on wine, spirits and food. His work appears widely in such publications as Food & Wine, The New York Times, Decanter, and many others. He has written several wine books, including Secrets of the Sommeliers and The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste (with Rajat Parr) and books on live-fire and meat cookery, including Franklin BBQ and Franklin Steak (with Aaron Franklin). He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
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