A frosty brew may be the common beverage of choice at a Labor Day barbecue, but wine lovers shouldn’t despair. There are a lot of wines that marry beautifully with burgers, brats and baked beans. But first, let’s be clear that the “best” wine to drink with any meal is a wine that you like. There truly is no right or wrong in matching wine with food, but there are certain combinations that make both the food and the wine taste better. The basic principle behind pairing wine with food is to balance the weight and prominent flavors of the food with the weight and prominent flavors of the wine.
These days, barbecue fare can mean anything from burgers and hot dogs to grilled swordfish and vegetables. Let’s start with the old stand-by of grilled meats which usually have a zesty sauce, dry rub or marinade. These bold, smoky flavors would overpower a subtle and floral white wine, but a fruity red with medium body is just the ticket. In this case, think Zinfandel. This all-American grape (California is the only place in the world where it is widely planted) is a match made in heaven with your all-American BBQ. If you prefer an even more intense ripe fruit quality, seek out a late-harvest Zinfandel which is produced from grapes that were allowed to ripen on the vine longer. Zinfandel is an outstanding value with a large variety of great bottles in the $12-15 range. An old vines variety will set you back just a few bucks more.
When you’re throwing a shrimp on the barbie, consider an Australian Shiraz (called Syrah if it’s French). This delightfully complex wine boasts great fruit, a hint of smokiness and balanced tannins — perfect for a wide variety of grilled foods. Shiraz is enjoying a huge wave of popularity in America which means great variety and value can be found in any wine shop. Expect to pay $10-12 for a good bottle.
If your menu consists of light fare like fish and vegetables, a white wine may be a better fit. Acid is a great flavor enhancer to these types of foods (think of the classic squeeze of lemon over fish), so a wine with crisp and acidic qualities, like a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Pouilly-Fumé
Many other common barbecue foods have qualities that make them difficult to match with wine. Spicy foods, for example, bring out the tannins as well as the alcohol flavor in wine, which may be pretty hard to take on a hot day. In this case, look for a wine with low tannins, a low alcohol content and/or a good amount of fruit. Also, when vinegar-heavy foods like salads are eaten with wine, the combination can produce sour, unpleasant flavors. Avoid the pitfalls of matching these tricky foods by selecting sparkling wine or Riesling — super all-purpose barbecue wines especially if you stick to ones that are on the dry side. Beaujolais or a high quality dry rosé would fit the bill, as well. All of these wines are well-suited to nearly any food imaginable and have the warm-weather bonus of being served chilled. When it doubt, consider them your no-fail stand-bys.
Pick up a few bottles and have fun experimenting with the flavor combinations you discover. Before you know it, wine will be as natural to your barbecues as sodas and suds.