One of the many wonderful memories I have teaching barbecue classes is that I get to meet some pretty cool people. Last Saturday, I met Nicholas DeNitto who is a trained wine sommelier. When I found out that Nick had extensive knowledge about wines, I thought that he might be willing to share his wine and barbecue pairing skills with his fellow students. I knew the students (one from as far as Korea) would benefit especially since Nick brought two bottles of wines for my students to sample during class. Here’s Nick’s story.
Pairing Wine with Barbeque by Nicholas DeNitto @thewolfofwinestreet, April 29, 2016
When I finally got the opportunity to attend Harry’s class on April 23, I decided to bring a couple of bottles of wine to pair with the smoked meats. To be honest, I was not sure that anyone would be excited about wine with barbeque. I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised when just about everyone in the group wanted to try and know more about the pairings.
I grew up in South Carolina where the de facto pairings with barbeque are either sweet tea or beer, and while there are actually good arguments for matching those two beverages with smoked meat (for reasons which I’ll get into shortly), I prefer beer while I’m doing the smoking and wine while I’m eating it.
I can understand one’s potential trepidation at breaking out a bottle of wine for the first time with your friends when everyone else is drinking beer–an irrational fear of looking less manly perhaps. To that, I would say that I believe it takes a real man to be confident enough to pair wine with barbeque. And to the fairer sex whose presence around pits is rapidly growing, I say if you like wine, placing the right bottle on the table next to a mound of perfectly cooked barbecue is a sure way to further assert your backyard dominance.
There are several challenges to pairing wine with barbeque, and I personally find them exciting rather than intimidating. Traditional red meat pairings are not going to work here due to a couple of unique considerations, but the good news is, you have a couple of things which work in your favor. If you’re not sure whether to pair a wine with the rub or the sauce, I personally always pick the one with the more dominant flavor. If your rub is the milder of the two, pair with your sauce and vice versa.
So, with that being said, let’s start with the general challenges:
- Sweetness from the rub and sauce. Sugar in food is, generally speaking, a wine enemy. It increases the burn from the alcohol while decreasing the body and fruitiness of the wine. Not good.
- Spiciness from the rub and sauce. In the case of chili heat, the alcohol in the wine is going to compound the burning in your mouth as well as decreasing the enjoyable parts of the wine’s taste and body (mouthfeel).
Now for the helpful factors:
- Salt. Salt decreases the perception of acidity and bitterness of wine (a.k.a. the tannins) and increases the body.
- Acidity. Acidity is generally your friend with wine, as it increases the body, sweetness, and fruitiness. Careful with too much of good thing, though (like in the case of an Eastern North Carolina sauce), as it can overwhelm the acid in your wine and make it taste flat.
With all of that being said, here are three of my go-to pairings that are versatile enough for a range of barbecue styles. I’ll give you a white, a pink, and a red.
White pairing: Off-Dry Gewurztraminer (Husch Gewurtraminer – Anderson Valley – $11.99 at BevMo). This wine’s modern home is Alsace France, a region that borders Germany: hence the name. “Gewurtz” translates to “spicy” in German, and this wine is known for its spice, ginger, honey, and tropical fruit aromas. This is a classic pairing with barbeque for a reason. The grape also has naturally high acidity, which helps clean the mouth after a fatty bite as well as balancing the sweetness of the wine. And speaking of sugar, if there’s a little heat in your rub or your sauce, residual sugar will calm that capsaicin burn down. This also means that you don’t have to worry about the sugar in your sauce so much.
Rosé pairing: Syrah/Grenache (Gassier Sables d’Azur – Côtes de Provence $13.99 at BevMo). A dry rosé is great for several reasons; namely it’s cold, it’s made from red grapes, and there are generally low levels of alcohol and tannins to contend with. These go great with brisket, and you should have plenty of mouth-cleansing acidity between each bite.
Red pairing: Cru Beaujolais (Domaine Diochon Moulin-A-Vent Cru Beaujolais – $23.99 at BevMo). Beaujolais should be your first thought when you want a warm weather red wine, and I’m not talking about the Beaujolais Nouveau with the flowery label that’s stacked on every grocery store aisle around Thanksgiving. Beaujolais is made from a grape called Gamay and is generally lighter in body and color than most reds with nice fruit and pretty much no oak. It’s usually served lightly chilled and is great for the same reasons as the rosé above, namely that it’s low in tannins and alcohol. Great for those in the group not daring enough to stray from reds with their meat! Refrigerate for about 30 minutes before serving: you don’t want it as cold as a white or rosé but trust me: this wine is great right around sunset on a hot day.
Based on how sugar and heat play together, you can probably already guess why sweet tea is a good pairing with spicy smoked stuff: it turns down the burn. Likewise, beer, which is generally lower in alcohol, tannins, and acidity, won’t intensify the spiciness too much, but it won’t add much in the way of complementary flavor. Branch out and try pairing some wine with your ‘que. If you’re as type A as I am, you can also try your sauce and rub with the wine beforehand to get an idea of how the pairing is going to work out and adjust accordingly.
If I can add one more little nugget it’s this: never cut corners when it comes to your meat or your wine. There are plenty of places where a penny saved makes little or no difference, but I can tell you from experience that while you can put lipstick on a pig, you can’t turn an off-cut factory farmed meat slab into filet mignon. The same goes for wine. While you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg for a good (or I daresay great) bottle, the reality is that you almost always have to spend more than $10 for an enjoyable one. Also much like your backyard technique, practice makes perfect with wine. Trust me: I’ve been exploring the middle shelf for years.