The art of pairing food and wine has always been a challenge to fine cooks, the classic lamb-and-Bordeaux marriage aside. But with warm summer evenings and back-yard Webers at hand, such a quandary should be tossed aside: Grilled foods and wine can be a simple, delightful match.
You don't have to mortgage your house for a good case of wine just to impress your friends around the barbecue. All the wines sampled for this story were bought at local wine stores and supermarkets for under $10, with some unbeatable bargains coming in at under $4.
There really aren't any rules for mixing and matching wine and food, other than perhaps employing a light touch on the vinegar and the sugar when marinating food (both ingredients can wreck the flavor of a good wine). Around the grill, where savory specialties normally abound, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.
The guideline of pairing by color -- red wine with red meat, white with white, for example -- might have worked well before the age of refrigeration. Today, as you will see, this old rule is only the loosest of guidelines for budding oenophiles. Matching by texture, rather than by color, is a greater but far more rewarding challenge. The only rule to keep in mind is that if it tastes good, it is good. Only you can be the judge.
When you host a back-yard grill fest, start off with a simple white, one that can accompany a variety of appetizers (grilled breads or vegetables brushed with olive oil) with uncomplicated ease. While the coals get hot and you prepare a salad of mixed greens, sip on a light summer wine. We found that a dry, citrusy 1990 Chilean sauvignon blanc from Walnut Crest ($3.50 to $4) or even a lush Californian offering from Sanford ($9) went well with chicken and pork in a simple marinade of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lime juice and garlic.
A more traditional tomato-based piquant barbecue sauce on chicken calls for a Chianti or Tuscan red; the 1990 Santa Cristina from Antinori ($9) is an excellent option made for summer dining. It is smooth and not too heavy, with flavors of young fruit and toast. This Italian favorite complements a wide array of foods, from pasta to grilled lamb.
Chicken basted with teriyaki sauce or pork brushed with a ginger-sesame-soy marinade pair well with a fruity chardonnay, such as the 1990 Lindemann's Bin 65 from Australia ($6), or one with a more oaky texture, such as the 1990 offering from California's J. Lohr winery. This wine defines what critics mean when they say a chardonnay is big and buttery. Some people may find it, and most other California chardonnays, too sweet to eat with barbecued foods. But a grilled bell pepper or a papaya served on the side will accord the wines a bone-dry finish. Either way, these wines are quite simply delicious.
Our favorite match was smoky, grilled seafood with a crisp wine. We sampled chunks of bluefish, shrimp and scallops in a marinade of Dijon mustard, olive oil, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and garlic and found some smashing wines with which to wash it all down. Bluefish, like mackerel, with its high oil and fat content, requires an assertive wine with a high acid cut. A 1990 Alsatian Riesling from Lucien Albrecht ($10) made for an excellent pairing -- remember the tip about sweetness. Light reds, such as Chianti and even a Beaujolais Villages, work well, too.
Scallops and shrimp in a simple lemon-vinaigrette dressing demand a more delicate touch, and the bargain-priced 1990 sauvignon blanc from Chateau St. Michelle ($6.50) was a real treat. The Wine Spectator, the wine trade's bimonthly bible, recently rated this one 91 on its 100-point scale, a scoring usually reserved for fine Bordeaux or cabernets.
Other great whites with seafood were a Laforet white Burgundy from Joseph Drouhin ($9) and another Chilean surprise, the 1990 Caliterra chardonnay ($6).
What about burgers and steaks? Well, with everything back-yard cooks splash on beef to spice it up (from onions and peppers to A-1 sauce), you'll need a substantial wine whose aroma and tang can emerge from the heavy flavorings. We liked the Clos du Val, Le Clos, a nonvintage Bordeaux-style blend from California ($7.50) with its cedar, spice and pepper backbone. The 1990 San Jose de Santiago cabernet, ($4) from Chile, has big young fruit that matches well with grilled beef dishes.
A bit lighter but no less flavorful is the 1989 Moulin-a-Vent Cru Beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf ($12). This one is loaded with plum, vanilla and woody flavors, and complex textures that partly explain all the fuss about the 1989 French vintage. A less expensive alternative, if you can find it, is Duboeuf's 1990 Beaujolais Villages, with its cherry overtones and smooth tannins. At half the price of the more highly regarded Moulin-a-Vent, the Beaujolais Villages is a bargain -- and you don't have to give up much by way of flavor. In fact, get a bottle of each and see if you can identify the high-priced version in a blind tasting.
The abundance of foods that take well to grilling and the variety of summer wines that are available make matching the two flavorful fun. You may find that the most challenging aspect to trying your food-wine combinations is waiting for the rain clouds to clear.