An Easy Guide to the Best Wines for BBQ
Dine with wine during grilling season! Take your summer meals to the next level with pairing tips from a California winemaker.
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Wine and barbecue are natural allies, but it didn’t click (or clink) for me right away. While I’ve always been a fan of grilled pork chops, ribs, and brisket, I didn’t come to appreciate vino until I was well into my 30s. I was late to the party and had some catching up to do.
When my taste buds had blossomed and I got into wine, at first I found that scene a little intimidating. I mean, I’m more about grilled foods like BBQ chicken and hot dogs, not so much fancy wine pairings. Since then, my preferences haven’t changed much, but my attitude toward wine certainly has. I've realized the fun is in experimenting with food and wine, which can be even more enjoyable if I base my selections on a few simple guidelines rather than worrying about specific wineries or vintages.
As I live in California, where the grilling season is long, I get plenty of time to play around with the barbecue dishes and wines I love, especially local ones. When you’re hosting a cookout, though, it may be helpful to have some clear ideas going in. So, to make life easier, the way wine can, I turned to an expert for some advice.
On my food adventures, I’ve been lucky enough to meet second-generation winemaker Clay Selkirk of Le Cuvier, a legendary winery on California’s Central Coast (and one of my personal all-time top three). Selkirk says working on food pairings with Le Cuvier’s chef is among the most interesting parts of his job.
Read on for insider tips and suggestions for picking the ideal wines to go with your favorite barbecue dishes. The delicious pairings that follow don’t come from the grapevine, but from Selkirk himself.
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Summer food and wine pairings
Before we sink our teeth into pairing grilled foods with wines, let’s address a more general question — what types of wine are good in the summer?
Selkirk recommends his three go-to summer options:
Grenache — as it complements smoky flavors, this versatile red wine is great for barbecue. Think burgers, ribs, sausages with herbs, fish, and veggies. “A Grenache can span the spectrum from light, delicately floral, and quaffable to robust and deep in flavor and color. It pairs well with a variety of foods, especially during the summer barbecue season,” Selkirk says.
Rosé of Grenache — fermented through limited skin contact, this is the pink version of regular Grenache. “Slightly chilled, it’s great for warm days, as it lends fresh strawberry, confection, and blood orange flavor profiles with its thirst-quenching acidity,” Selkirk explains. Here’s to grilled chicken with fresh tomato bruschetta and a cool glass of rosé on the side!
Syrah — rich and full-bodied, this red wine is known as Shiraz in Australia. “With its visceral fleshiness, dark fruit, and smoke and earth aromas, it often pairs wonderfully with the more robust flavors of grilled duck, or red meats like rack of lamb and grass-fed black pepper steak.”
Tips for pairing grilled foods with wine
Selkirk encourages us to push our culinary boundaries to discover what works for our individual tastes. To avoid pitfalls and make exploring even more pleasant, it’s important to keep these general principles in mind:
Fats are essential to the ways in which wine plays off food. “Fats give tannic and acidic wines something to cut through,” Selkirk explains. When meat is on the grill, you also want a little fat to keep it from drying out. He advises us to keep a thin coating of fat on meat or brush it with a little olive oil.
Salt helps your food’s natural flavors pop, so there’s more for your wines to interact with. “Use salt generously,” Selkirk says. Season your grillables from high above so the salt spreads evenly. When preparing a whole bird like a Cornish game hen, duck, or spatchcocked turkey, make sure salt gets into all the crevices.
Sugar and vinegar often hide in BBQ sauce and dips. “Sugar and vinegar can make your wine taste sour or even too sweet,” Selkirk warns. So, depending on the way the sauce tastes, you may want the wine to counter, complement, or even echo it. To go with tangy sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauces, contrast them with Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah. With mellower sauces, Grenache, GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre), or a dry Riesling can hit the spot.
Spices like cayenne, chipotle chili, various dry rubs, hot sauces, and even cumin, garlic, or ginger don’t always play well with wine. “If you want to have a kick of heat in your meat or vegetarian dish, I recommend a wine with a touch of residual sugar like a Riesling or Vinho Verde — or semi-sweet sparkling wine. The sugar and low alcohol in the wine help to counter the hot spice of the dish,” Selkirk explains.
Wood makes barbecue taste amazing and, like salt, it gives wine more to interact with. “If you have aged oak wood or bark available for an open flame barbecue, the aromas the wood smoke lends to the meat add a layer of flavor gas is unable to impart,” Selkirk says. If you don’t own a wood-fired grill, consider barbecuing your tri-tip with a handful of soaked wood chips scattered on charcoal or tucked into the smoking box of your gas grill.
Both red and white wines pair with a variety of grilled foods. Selkirk believes it’s time we saw the myth that red wine can’t pair with fish or poultry or that white wine can’t pair with grilled meats for what it is. “Don’t be afraid to open multiple bottles, multiple varietals with different types of food, including meat and vegetarian dishes,” he urges.
15 curated BBQ-wine pairings
Having fun experimenting with barbecue and wine is key. Selkirk likes to match wines with just about any food he can get away with throwing on the grill: tri-tip, sausages, artichokes, stuffed mushrooms, oysters, marinated swordfish, chicken, whole bell peppers, zucchini, pineapple, stone fruits — you name it. In that spirit, I’ve picked 15 barbecue recipes accompanied by Selkirk’s pairing recommendations.
The beauty of tri-tip is in its simplicity. All it needs is a little salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. Even if you generally prefer your beef cooked medium-well, tri-tip is lean and can dry out, so it's best to go with medium-rare or medium. Once it’s rested, cut across the grain and enjoy the tender slices with a luscious, bigger red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Petite Sirah.
Here’s a grilled flank steak with an easy, flavorful cilantro-based marinade that doubles as a sauce — just remember to save half a cup in the fridge for later. The flank steak has to marinate for at least 4 hours, but it’s worth the wait. Throw the meat on the grill for about 6 minutes per side, then let it rest, add the sauce you set aside, and slice thinly across the grain. While I often tuck carne asada into tortillas for tacos, I could happily eat this meat on its own, especially with a nice Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec.
The key to this splurge-worthy steak is the easy fresh herb and shallot butter. Other than letting the butter chill for a few hours for the flavors to meld, the recipe requires remarkably little time and few ingredients (a hardwood fire helps build flavor, too). The herb-infused butter mingles with the meat’s juices so well, you may never look at a steak sauce again after taking a bite of this unbelievably delicious ribeye. A Cabernet Sauvignon would be an excellent companion, as the tannins will cut through the meat’s richness and complement the smoky flavor of the grilled beef.
Here’s another quick and easy recipe — because a good burger doesn’t need much to taste amazing. For the juiciest burgers, go with ground meat with 20% fat. Make sure the patties are wider than the bun as they shrink on the grill. Once you’ve built your perfect burger, pour some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Grenache, and dig in. A fruitier Grenache will highlight your food’s smokiness, while one of the other wines, which are more muscular, will echo it.
Grillmasters love this recipe, which cookbook author David Bonom created for Yummly. It’s designed to make your bone-in pork chops juicy and flavorful, and the best part is you can marinate the meat for as little as 1 hour. When the pork has soaked up the seasoning, take it out of the fridge. While it reaches room temperature and the grill preheats, whip up the quick chimichurri. Grilling is the fastest bit. Let your creation rest, add the chimichurri, and serve with Grenache.
A honey and balsamic vinegar baste ties this quick recipe together. It’s a brilliant combination of textures and flavors, too. Peppery arugula is a nice touch as it brings out the sweetness and the aromas of the veggies. The dish is easy to make, with only 10 minutes of prep time. Just be sure to put the sausages on the upper deck or the cool (indirect heat) side of the grill so they don’t dry out. A fruity Zinfandel or a floral Grenache can play really well with this take on sausages, a classic on the grill.
These chicken breasts get their kick from cumin and ground chipotle peppers. All you have to do is lightly pound each chicken breast even — so the meat cooks at the same rate — then marinate for an hour (or longer if you prefer). Remember to grill on medium heat to avoid burning the meat. The sweetness of a Riesling or a Vinho Verde can be a good match for this spicy chicken.
If you’re looking to spice up your grilling routine, here’s a fantastic option for you. This exquisite recipe by chef Jet Tila takes a few extra steps, and the meat needs 4 hours to marinate, but the results will please you and impress your guests. After creating the aromatic curry-based marinade, you refrigerate the chicken in it, then bake it in the oven before finishing it off on the grill. A Riesling could pair well with this coconut- and lemongrass-infused chicken served with a sweet chili sauce.
Here’s another way to change up your summer barbecue menus. For this Indian-inspired recipe by David Bonom, not only will you create a zesty spiced yogurt marinade, but you’ll also whip up your own raita, a mild cucumber and yogurt sauce. For the most moist chicken, start by grilling it briefly over direct heat, then transfer it to indirect to finish cooking. Riesling is a safe bet for the moderate spices in this dish, but if you’re feeling adventurous, open a bottle of red like a Zinfandel or a fruitier Pinot Noir.
This healthy protein is a regular in the summer grilling lineup. The secret to keeping salmon moist is to grill it over indirect heat, and this recipe explains how to set up the fire. The entire recipe takes only about 30 minutes, including the fresh Mediterranean-inspired relish. Try this dish with a Grenache or Chardonnay.
In this easy recipe, chef Daniel Holzman shows you how to tell if your swordfish is fresh — look for a pinkish hue and a faint ocean scent. Remove the skin and the dark bloodlines before salting the fillets, after which you’ll let them sit for 15-20 minutes (don’t go over 2 hours or the fish will dry out). For the quick salmoriglio sauce, a Sicilian classic with Spanish influences, you’ll need a pot of boiling water, so heat some up while you’re prepping the fish. This culinary feat will shake things up at your next barbecue, and the fish should be delicious with a Chardonnay.
If you haven’t shucked oysters before, never fear — this recipe comes with a handy guide. The rest is pretty much the quick softened butter mixture, which requires only 4 pantry ingredients, and the grilling, which takes only about 8 minutes. Make sure you get enough oysters, as the first batch might be gone before you can say “oy.” Savor them with a Chardonnay or a Pinot Gris.
Care for some grilled zucchini with your steak or barbecued chicken breast? This side dish takes only 20 minutes. What makes it special is the seasoning mix you sprinkle on the zucchini after you brush it with olive oil. On its own, the dish is delicious with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Petite Sirah. Of course, if you’re eating the zucchini with a red meat barbecue staple like steak, these wines could also work beautifully.
Here comes a statement as bold as a Cabernet Sauvignon. These artichokes might perform well as an appetizer, but I see them as a meal in and of itself. I, for one, can nibble on them for hours, and that’s not an exaggeration. Picking the right artichokes can be tricky. Their green leaves (purple tinges are okay, but avoid those with brown hues) should be tightly closed, and the whole artichoke head should feel heavy in your hand. Once you’ve brought the lucky winners home, boil them until tender, trim those fuzzy centers, and add a little char on the grill. When they come off the fire, savor them with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Petite Sirah.
These vegetarian- and keto-friendly portobellos are ready in just 10 minutes. While they’re a wonderful side dish, you can also easily transform them into a meal by chopping them into an omelet or slapping slices of bread around them to make a sandwich. The trick to this recipe is the quick balsamic oil dressing you whisk together with fragrant Greek-style herbs. Enjoy the mushrooms with a hearty red like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Petite Sirah — or discover your own favorite pairings, which is what food and wine are all about!
More on summertime food and refreshments
The time’s always ripe to broaden our horizons when it comes to summer entertaining. These next articles overflow with fresh ideas, so quench your thirst for knowledge — and may your explorations be fruitful!