Walk through any suburban neighborhood at dinnertime on any weekend evening this time of year. Hoist your honker to the skies and smell the burning charcoal and dripping, burning fat.
No doubt about it, it's grilling season.
Following the annual migration of food preparation to the outdoors is the perennial question: How shall these delicacies be washed down?
There is much to be said for that noble beverage beer on such occasions -- especially as June gives way to July and August. And lemonade, the homemade variety with little bits of fresh-squeezed lemon floating in it, has undeniable charms.
But no beverage on the planet so perfectly complements dinner as a well-matched, dry table wine.
Meats that come hot to the table from our charcoal and gas grills have an affinity for certain types of wine. These wines are not the most famous or popular varietals. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay are wonderful grape varieties that yield delicious wines, but they have no properties that make them especially well-suited to serve with grilled foods.
The types of wines I would nominate as Grilled Food All-Stars include whites, reds and the often-scorned pink wines.
Among white wines, sauvignon blancs stand out as an especially fine matchup with grilled fish and shellfish, with the exception of tuna steaks. Sauvignon blancs have a unique smoky quality that seems to marry with the smoky flavors imparted by the grill. Usually, these wines have more lively acidity than chardonnay -- a virtue as the weather warms up.
Sauvignon blancs come from many sources. France has the classic sauvignon blanc-based wines of Sancerre and Pouilly- Fume in the Loire, as well as a host of new offerings from the south of the country. Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Washington state are producing excellent versions -- often at very attractive prices.
I continue to be most impressed by the variety and the quality of the sauvignon blancs being produced in California -- many of them under the name fume blanc.
More and more, California vintners are taking new directions with sauvignon blanc instead of just trying to ape French styles. We're seeing more sauvignon blancs that are being fermented in the barrel or that are blended with semillon, as is done with the best white Bordeaux.
The result is fuller wines that can stand up better to the flavors of grilled food. That is why I prefer a full-bodied California sauvignon blanc from a producer such as Matanzas Creek to a Sancerre with grilled salmon or swordfish.
Other, lesser-known white wines that deserve consideration with grilled foods include dry California or Washington chenin blanc, bone-dry Alsace muscat and some California viogniers and marsannes.
For grilled chicken, as with other grilled poultry, I will almost invariably choose a red. The kind of red will vary based on the marinade or sauce.
With a basic Provence-style marinade (olive oil, lemon juice and herbs), chicken will match well with a lighter red from the south of France, a Beaujolais-Villages or an inexpensive pinot noir. A more tangy, spicy marinade would suggest a light-style red zinfandel (not one of those Sonoma County blockbusters), a Chianti or a Cotes-du-Rhone. Add some raspberries to the marinade and you might want to choose a more concentrated Beaujolais from Morgon or Moulin-a-Vent.
If you like to drench your grilled chicken in barbecue sauce, you'll need a more hefty, coarse red to stand up to the flavors. An Australian shiraz or a California field blend such as Cline's Cotes d'Oakley would probably work as well as anything that isn't beer.
Grilled tuna steaks are red meat from the sea. They positively demand a red -- one that is neither too heavy nor too light. For me, the grape variety that strikes just the right note is mourvedre -- an increasingly popular grape among California vintners. My first choice, however, would be a moderately well-aged Bandol, a mourvedre-based wine from Provence. In the absence of mourvedre, a fine middle-weight pinot noir from a producer such as California's Saintsbury would be a wonderful consolation.
With a grilled steak or lamb, a big part of the decision involves where the food is eaten. If it's consumed on the porch in 85-degree weather, you might want to serve a cool Beaujolais or pinot noir. If you bring it inside to an air-conditioned room, there's no reason not to serve a big red of your choice.
My choice would be Chateauneuf-du-Pape, because it tends to have an herbal quality that blends well with the smoky flavors from the grill.
More, better roses
In matching grilled food with wine, it is also wise not to overlook that which is pink. More fine rose wines are on the market today than ever before, and the best are exceptional hot-weather wines that would provide a delicious match with grilled salmon, scallops or spicy shrimp.
Especially noteworthy are some of the roses based on Rhone-style grapes from such producers as Cline, McDowell and Joseph Phelps. These pink wines are as fine as any in the world today and deserve the attention of discriminating grill-meisters (and meistresses) everywhere.
In two weeks: Some specific suggestions on wines to serve with grilled foods.
Pub Date: 5/11/97