Summer's here and that means grilling season. When the summer days mean it's too stifling to cook over a hot stove, I loveto take the kitchen prep outside and cook as much as I can over the open flame. Not only does it keep the house cool, grilling outside lets me enjoy the warm summer evenings, and offers the delicious reward of smoky, crisp-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside grilled food. There's nothing that says summer as much as grilling. But where do wines fit into this? Does enjoying the tasty experience of grilled summer food mean that you have to trade your wine glass for a beer can? Not unless you want to!
Grilled foods' unique, strong flavors offer their own unique set of pairing challenges. Luckily, there are many wonderful wines that are up to the test. Here are a few of our favorites:
Zinfandel has a reputation as the quintessential grilling wine, and deservedly so. Zinfandel's full-bodied character makes it the perfect accompaniment to rich grilled meats like steaks, burgers, and lamb. It also has a unique fruity-yet-spicy flavor that matches perfectly with the rich, spicy sauces that are so often seen on barbecued food. But be careful: you want the flavors of your wine and food to complement, not compete. So pairing a spicy Zin with an especially spicy barbecue sauce might make the spice flavors overwhelm the dish. If you're cooking something especially spice-forward, try a Merlot--its fruity characteristics will let the spice shine without masking the subtler flavors of meat and smoke.
Speaking of smoke, another great grilling wine is Syrah, because it is characterized by smokey notes that go perfectly with grilled foods like sausage, brisket, and just about any red meat. Syrahs from the Rhone region are especially known for their smokey characteristics. Syrah also has very fruit-forward flavors and soft tannins that make it an easy-drinking wine perfect for sharing around the picnic table.
Rosé is a great choice for lighter grilled foods because its red wine notes match up to the intense charcoal flavors the grill imparts without overwhelming more delicate foods. Try it with fish, chicken, or grilled veggies.
Chardonnay is a great wine for summer grilling because its strong oaky notes allow it to stand up to the rich tastes of grilled foods better than most whites. Its buttery flavors make it a fantastic accompaniment to things like grilled fish with a buttery sauce. And for a little slice of heaven, pair a Chardonnay with fresh grilled corn on the cob with plenty of butter.
Sauvignon Blanc is another great grilling wine, but for a different reason--its citrusy, herbaceous nature is a great foil to the opposingly strong, rich flavors of grilled food. It refreshes the palate and makes those grill flavors shine through even more. Try Sauvignon Blanc with fish grilled with lemon or anything marinated in herbs.
As always, remember that pairing wine with food is an art, not a science. Don't be afraid to break the rules a little, pairing a nice red with grilled chicken or experimenting with a brand-new varietal. Play to your tastes and enjoy the summer grilling season!