Summer is for barbecues

Who doesn’t associate summer with barbecue? It’s an American thing, but you might also consider it a return to primitive instincts; reminding me of one of Woody Allen’s classic quips about food in general: “Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.”

In our case, preferably a good wine, ideally matched with…

Smoky baby back ribs or pulled pork with tomato based barbecued pork

Grill smoked pork with classic tomato based barbecue sauces – laced with vinegar, brown sugar onions, and often, chili spices and Worcestershire – cordially invite wines with equalizing doses of tannin and alcohol to absorb the pork fat, and picquant, almost sweet fruitiness to balance out the sweet, sour, hot sensations in the sauce. This is why I’ll never understand the criticism of warm climate red wines by wine geeks who obviously can’t relate to wines in terms of food contexts, because there’s nothing like, say, big, fat, juicy, jammy zinfandel with classic American barbecued pork. In fact, in my experience: the bigger, fatter and jammier the better!

Always having an oral fixation (as a baby, my drool was famous), my rib preferences have always been for the soft, chewy cartilage on the bone ends; custom grilled for fruit laden red zins, especially from Lodi (current fave-raves: Harney Lane, Abundance, Earthquake, Macchia, m2, and Klinker Brick), although the snappier Sonoma grown zins (like those of Acorn, Gamba, Bella Vetta, Mauritson, Davis Family, Quivira, Valdez, and Ridge Lytton Springs) always do just as well for me. Why? Lush, almost sweet berry jam fruitiness combined with snappy acidity, blackpepper/clove spices and thick, meaty bodies typical of classic zinfandel make the consumption of sweet/spicy/vinegary pork barbecues all the more luscious – one of the most natural wine and food combinations in the world.

Slabs of dry rubbed ribs

In Memphis where I once lived, each specialty barbecue house has its own “secret” rubs (variations of paprika, onion powder and cayenne, and taking it from there), and it’s in the roasting mediums that you get further distinctions. My favorite were the slabs by Central BBQ, which always come out of slow-cook ovens extremely earthy and caramelized: lessons in sensory overload (you can also order “wet” slabs in most barbecue joints, but sauces can blur the subtleties – yes, even jackhammer sensations have refinements – of dry rubs).

The best wine matches for dry rubbed slabs are thick and meaty, with enough tannin and chewy wood to absorb the fat and stinging red pepper spice. Sounds like a job for petite sirah, and it is. For starters: those of Earthquake, Rosenblum and Two Angels deliver the uncontained tannin and sweetness of fruit (like peppery blueberries) you expect in this grape; although my current favorites petites are those of Truett-Hurst in Dry Creek Valley, Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Reserve, Amador County’s C.G. di Arie, and Parducci’s True Grit from Mendocino, and from the Sierra Foothills, the killer petites of Cedarville, Miraflores and Lava Cap.

Pure syrahs, of course, often have enough cracked pepper qualities to dial in the red and black peppery spices of Memphis dry rubs.  The syrahs of Paul Lato, Jaffurs, MacPrice Meyers, and Skylark in California, and Quady North, Del Rio and Spangler in Southern Oregon are among the most peppery I have recently found (for an expanded rundown on top West Coast syrahs, see Syrahs, Syrahs, Syrahs). Then again, there are never enough excuses to reach for an actual petite sirah… so there!

Barbecue Chicken

In Hawai`i we call it huli huli chicken (usually halves marinated in mixtures of soy sauce, lime, ginger, Hawaiian sea salt, brown sugar or honey, and a touch of cayenne or sambal, before char-grilling). In Memphis, I found that the whole chickens were usually rubbed with mixtures of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, white or brown sugar, dry mustard, garlic and onion powder, but it was the slow roasting that really did the trick: the meat absolutely inundated with nostril penetrating smokiness, served with thick, phenomenally expressive sauces (spices touching all the taste buds – sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and umami).

The fruitiness of softer style zinfandels (like Jesse's Grove's Earth, Zin & Fire, Michael-David’s unbiquitous 7 Deadly Zins, or better yet, Laurel Glen's ZaZin) makes an the effortless match, but the more blatantly sweet oaked, smoky, sun ripened fruit forward qualities typical of Australian shiraz might be even better. I’m always partial to the syrahs of winemaker Sparky Marquis (co-originator of Marquis-Philips), who now makes an amazing South Australia shiraz under the Mollydooker label. Other top, value priced choices: Torbreck’s Woodcutter’s, d’Arenberg’s Footbolt, and Gemtree’s organically grown Tadpole.

But if the day is a 90° or 100°+ scorcher, don’t underestimate the power of good ol’ fashioned white zinfandel (the watermelony fresh, off-dry De Loach has always been my favorite) with smoky, spicy chicken. Another great summery choice: classic, off-dry riesling from Germany (look for Zilliken’s Butterfly or Pfeffingen’s Pfeffo), Down Under (like the Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate or New Zealand’s Villa Maria), or the Pacific-Northwest (Chehalem in Willamette Valley and Pacific Rim in Columbia Valley make the finest).

Soy based Asian style barbecues

Japanese teriyaki, Mongolian and Korean style barbecues always start with marinades of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sugar; and after that, the variations are endless (additions of beer, chili spices, sesame seeds, Worcestershire, hoisin, pineapple, saké, rice or white wine vinegars, mustards or wasabi, ponzu or yuzu, green onions or mint… you name it, it’s done), and usually involve either thinly sliced beef flank or sirloin, or (in the case of Korean kalbi) short ribs of beef.

Since soy sauce is basically a salty/umami sensation, the best balancing sensations in a wine are either residual sugar (i.e. slightly sweet whites, like that of rieslings) or unabashed fruitiness in red wines made from zinfandel, syrah or shiraz, or gamay noir – the latter, the grape of France’s Beaujolais region). When it comes to Beaujolais, virtually any brand or type will do; although I am partial to the more deeply aromatic and flavorful bottlings of Beaujolais’ grand crus, which you find labeled under village names such as Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chénas, Chiroubles, Régnié, Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Brouilly or Côte de Brouilly.

My absolute favorite Beaujolais reds? Those of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: beginning with luscious, sprightly Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais and the full, fleshy, grandiose Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent, and ending with the earthy yet exuberantly fruited, unfiltered, unfined, unnothinged Morgons by Domaine Thévenet or Guy Breton.

Ah, summer… ah, barbecued meats and wines!


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