Wine Pairing with BBQ and Grilled Foods
Grilling has the amazing ability to bring food and wine closer together. Along with transforming simple ingredients through char, smoke and caramelization, the cooking method also impacts elements in wine such as tannins, oak and fruit—creating opportunities for incredible flavor combinations. To learn the ideal BBQ wine pairings and why they work, we reached out to three sommeliers in Houston, Texas: June Rodil of Rosie Cannonball, Marcus Gausepohl of Brennan’s, and Cary Attar of Fielding’s Wood Grill and Fielding’s Local Kitchen + Bar. All have extensive experience pairing wine with wood-grilled dishes—they’re in barbecue-mad Texas, after all—from steaks to poultry to vegetables. Here are their tips for finding wines that thrive on grilling’s magical trio of char, smoke and caramelization.
Grilled Foods and BBQ Wine Pairings
Char brings an element of bitterness to grilled foods, which can accentuate the bitterness in tannic wines. That’s why charred foods work best with wines that have well-integrated tannins.
When choosing a wine to stand up to char, Rodil says this: “You’ve got to step up your boldness. With char, you have that delicate balance of bitterness that turns into sweetness, or sweetness that turns into bitterness.” To provide balance, Rodil chooses wines with robust fruit and a bit of oak. “Oak is that parallel so it almost foundationally levels out that pairing,” she says. “It lets the rest of the wine’s bouquet explode on your palate.”
She particularly loves wood-grilled vegetables with barrel-aged whites, such as chardonnay. “Because of the char, you need a bit more weight,” she explains. “You also want a wine that has that lovely spice rack nuance that you find with French oak. And you’ve got to have fruit as well.” One of her favorite pairings at the restaurant is a blistered, wood-grilled string bean salad, served with an oaked chardonnay. “The dish has brightness and freshness, and it has a charred note to it,” Rodil says. “That’s also exactly what a beautifully made chardonnay has.”
A quintessential BBQ wine pairing, Gausepohl finds that cabernet sauvignon is a particularly great match for the char of Brennan’s steaks, which are cooked over an open-flame grill. “The added depth of flavor from the char always works well with fuller-bodied red wines,” he says. “A dark and seductive cabernet with beautiful fruit can do great things.” (Also watch our video of how to grill eggplant)
Pairing wine with smoke-infused foods is a balancing act. Smoke’s pungent aromas and flavors can quickly overwhelm a subtle wine, but they can also do wonders in enhancing and complementing the character of oaked wines. (Learn more about the best grilling fuels.)
The first thing to consider when pairing wines with smoked foods, says Attar, is the variety of wood. Both Fielding’s restaurants use a combination of local woods to fuel their wood-fired grills. “I think if you’re grilling with more delicate woods, such as pecan, oak or cherry, they’re going to bring out and complement the more perfumed facets of an elegant wine,” he says.
On the other hand, if you’re grilling with a bold wood like mesquite, a more powerful wine makes a better match. “When you grill with mesquite you’ve got these big flavors, so you need something that has some structure and backbone, like a bold cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc or primitivo.”
Attar typically leans toward California cabernets and chardonnays, because they have the complexity, fruit and structure to stand up to wood-grilled foods. “If you have food with very intense smoke and pair it with a soft wine, the smoke will overshadow it,” he says. “You need something that is fresh and alive, because grilling is a pronounced flavor.”
Like Attar, Rodil believes that barbecued foods with a heavy smoky character call for equally bold wines. “Especially in reds, smokiness enhances the fruit flavors, but you have to start with the baseline of how smoky the food is. Barbecue is intensely powerful, so you need an intensely powerful wine.”
For a grilled steak Florentine, Rodil recommends a beautifully balanced cabernet sauvignon that also displays elegance and freshness. The fat in the dish’s traditional porterhouse cut also helps enhance the pairing by providing opulence and richness that increase the wine’s depth of flavor.
Gausepohl typically chooses a robust red wine, such as syrah or zinfandel, to pair with smoked red meats. With smoke-enhanced poultry and fish dishes, he recommends a white wine enhanced with a bit of oak.
Burned sugars in meats and vegetables add depth to grilled foods and present intriguing BBQ wine pairing opportunities. Find some grilled vegetable ideas here.
Because caramelized foods can make the tannins in red wine taste more astringent, Rodil looks for dark, robust reds with rounded fruit flavors. “Choose a wine with power and a bit more fruit density,” she says. “You want to be able to get that lovely, rich fruit bouquet.”
The effects of caramelization have an especially profound impact on vegetables, says Attar. “When you grill something like a cherry bell pepper, it adds a wonderful layer of complexity,” he says. “Then when you layer in some nice olive oil, salt and pepper, it just pairs so well with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or even gewürztraminer. Both the wine and food will become very fragrant and perfumed.”