Though many Bay Area residents are accustomed to waiting until October for good grilling weather, we’ve actually experienced summer this year—in summer—evidenced chiefly by the amount of grilling going on. While beer is the go-to drink for most backyard barbecues, wine offers a great deal more range in terms of flavor profiles, especially given many home cooks’ tendencies to stray from the barbecue styles of old. Make no mistake: Burgers and ribs are still staples, and they probably always will be, but even the average chief-griller in California strays outside these bounds, looking to Asian and Mediterranean cuisines as often as standard fare.
When you order grilled foods at restaurants, the wine list takes a bit of the guesswork out of what fermented grape juice might go with your dish. Sommeliers often work with the spice profiles of each recipe to make recommendations based on predominant flavors, or on the lightness or heaviness of the preparation. But what to serve when you’re grilling in your own backyard?
Here are 10 affordable recommendations, based on the flavors of what you’re serving, rather than the type of protein or vegetable.
Classic dishes in the U.S., such as burgers, ribs, and chicken, have traditionally been paired with big reds, if not beer. But there are many more creative wine choices that work well, especially in summer, when you don’t necessarily want to be sipping a Napa Cab in 85-degree heat. A recent discovery for me, and my top choice for burgers, is the 2013 Vylyan Villanyi Portugieser “Macksa” ($14.50 at Vintage Berkeley), a Hungarian red that is one note, but a solid, not-too-ripe one. Designed to be drunk young and fresh, it has a slight green-spiciness that saves it from being overwhelmed by big meat. Though it’s counterintuitive, serve it slightly chilled.
It’s important to note that I used grass-fed beef, which is less sweet than meat from grain-fed cows. If you go the grain-fed route, try something with more tannins, perhaps a 2012 Shenandoah “Special Reserve” Zinfandel ($9.99 at K&L Wine Merchants in both San Francisco and Redwood City), with a bit of Syrah and Grenache blended in. It’s light-bodied, as Zins go, so a good summer choice. Both dry-rubbed pork spareribs and dark-meat chicken also fare well with this wine because the forward fruit and tannin structure match up with the meat’s fat.
Umami and Sweet Spice
Recipes with a pan-Asian profile, like this Korean barbecue (bulgogi) recipe, call for an altogether different wine approach. I swapped brown sugar for white, and added grated Asian pear to balance the fish sauce. Since it tends slightly toward the sweet, it needs a wine with an acidic backbone. The most successful pairing I tried was a rosé from Italy’s Veneto, Rosato del Sole Chiaretto ($14.95 at BevMo!, in stock widely throughout Bay Area locations). Chiaretto is a wine from Lago di Garda, near Venice, made with Gropello grapes, with minimal skin contact (hence, the pale color). It has strong strawberry and cherry flavors, without being the least bit sweet. Some people insist on red wine with meat, and the 2010 Planeta La Segreta ($16.99, also at BevMo!) fits the bill. While it has ripe, young fruit—great alongside fattier cuts of meat—it’s acidic enough to work with the sweet and/or umami edges of food in this category.
Other approaches, such as lemongrass marinades with fish sauce or kombu dashi, skew more umami. I marinated various chicken parts and shell-on shrimp in a combination of fish sauce, lemongrass, and ginger, and found that, once caramelized on the grill, these dishes go best with wines that have obvious minerality, which lands me squarely on the 2013 Caravaglio Salina ($18.95 at North Berkeley Wines), a dry Malvasia from Sicily that shows off this grape that’s most often vinified as sweet. Volcanic soil gives it its essential flintiness, and the bright fruit seems sun-bleached, as inviting as an island beach.
Coastal Mediterranean Seafood
A beautiful Tavel rosé, namely the 2013 Domaine Amido “Les Amadines” ($17.00 at Vintage Berkeley) is the perfect starting point for all manner of grilled seafood with traditional French or Italian flavors. Think shrimp with garlic and lemon (or even preserved lemon), whole branzino, skin-on, with herbs de Provence, and Monterey calamari a la plancha. Evenly balanced between fruit and acidity, the Tavel isn’t blown away by the citrus that often characterizes this kind of cooking. Another wine that pairs perfectly with all of the above is the Andre Tremblay Chablis ($17.95 at BevMo! with free membership account). A subtle representation of Chardonnay, this steely-but-light white works well with grilled seafood in butter sauce, or any preparation not overly spiced with more than sea salt and pepper.
I tend to crank up the heat on almost everything I can, and grilled foods are no exception. Chile-marinated chicken wings and the Mercat Cava Brut Nature ($16.50 at Vintage Berkeley) are a match made in hot-pepper heaven: Flinty limestone and stone-fruit flavors combine for a perfectly dry (brut nature signifies no added dosage), fruity wine that is not intimidated, even by sriracha. If you’re not a bubbles fan, you can’t go wrong with a Sicilian Carricante, and Benanti’s Bianco di Caselle ($15 at Biondivino in San Francisco) or a red from the same house (2010 Benanti Rosso di Verzella ($16 at Biondivino) are both affordable winners. The white is another volcanic beauty from Sicily’s Etna area, and the red is an unoaked Nerello Mascalese that works with crushed red peppers, grilled spicy green peppers (like poblanos and green chiles), and even Thai bird chiles, used in moderation. If you grill up spicy tofu and vegetables, especially summer squash, okra, or eggplant, these wines represent themselves proudly.