The 'right' wine to splash into your glass when the food comes off the coals

VINTAGE POINT

May 25, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Outdoor grilling is a very personal form of cooking -- depending more on intuition than formula.

Yes, there are barbecue cookbooks, but when was the last time you saw someone actually follow a recipe to the letter? To do so is an invitation to disaster, because no two fires are the same.

The choice of wines to go with grilled food is a very personal one, too. So this -- along with the next column -- is a very personal answer to a question about food matchups posed by my editor.

Whole books have been written about wine and food pairings, but I have never seen one that doesn't try to make me feel like a bozo for enjoying matchups that aren't on the approved list. So let's be clear on one thing: These aren't rules. They are observations based on unscientific experimentation.

Like many video arcade games, food-wine matchups can be played on many levels. Some people take the matter so seriously it might as well be Mortal Kombat. For others, it's an afterthought.

At its most basic level, the answer to the question of which wine to serve with grilled food is the same one people have used for all foods: White wine with white meat, red wine with red meat. It's a rule that's demonstrably flawed, but 9 times out of 10 it will produce a wine choice that's at least acceptable.

At higher levels of the game, more variables come into play and the goal becomes more elusive. Instead of an acceptable choice, you aim for an excellent selection or even the elusive Perfect Match. Seldom do you attain it, but on occasion it's fun to play.

Sometimes I play on the higher levels, sometimes I don't. Sometimes my choice is governed by my wanting to drink a certain wine that night -- regardless of whether the pairing is "correct." At other times I calculate every last factor down to wind velocity. (I maintain a fairly extensive cellar, which gives me an unfair advantage over the person who's buying today for drinking tonight.)

Grilled food poses some interesting challenges other foods don't. In grilling, the manner of cooking is part of the seasoning. It's also a form of cooking in which the food is often consumed outdoors. That can be an important factor in my choice of wine.

The most important factors are what and how you grill. And no two people grill in exactly the same way.

Some people grill only hot dogs, hamburgers and steaks; I'll grill virtually anything that'll slow down long enough to let me marinate it. Some people use gas grills; I use Old-Fashioned Charcoal, a non-briquette form that I swear by. Some people cook red meat until it's brown and tough as shoe leather; I like it so rare it looks like a recent crime scene. Some people grill only in the summer; I'll be out at the Weber when there's snow on the ground. All are factors in the choice of wine.

For me, one of the most important factors is the marinade. My marinades tend to rely heavily on herbes de Provence. That skews my wine choices in the direction of southern France. Someone who uses Italian seasonings might prefer Italian wines.

There are other questions:

Do you use mesquite? That can be a consideration. The extra smokiness and spiciness could tip the balance toward a wine with those characteristics, such as a red zinfandel.

Who's coming for dinner? Are they people who will appreciate your best or who won't notice the difference? That could make the difference between a Beaujolais-Villages and a Burgundy. Do they have special preferences? If my guest is a Bordeaux fanatic, I'll serve one even if it isn't my first choice with grilled food.

What's the weather? Warmer weather calls for lighter, more acidic wines, especially if you're eating outdoors. Nobody wants to sip red Chateauneuf-du-Pape on the deck when it's 95 in the shade. But if it's lamb we're cooking and we bring it indoors to a well air-conditioned dining room, that might be my first choice.

What are the secondary courses? Sometimes they can clash with a wine that would be your first choice with the main dish. A down-the-list choice might be better with the overall meal. Some vinegary potato salads, for instance, might push you toward a simpler, lighter, more fruity wine.

Do you use barbecue sauce? If you do, you might want to stick to a fairly simple, fruity wine because most barbecue sauces, especially sweeter ones, tend to obliterate the flavors of dry, complex wines. You might be better off with a simple Beaujolais Nouveau than a better cru such as Morgon.

Is there a salsa or spicy topping? That might argue for a wine with some residual sugar, like a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay.

There's also the question of your own preferences. Every wine writer in the country might agree that a full-bodied but racy Sancerre from the Loire would be lovely with grilled shrimp, but it doesn't matter if you don't like Sancerre. Maybe you should open that California chardonnay you love, no matter what I think.

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