A Foolproof Guide to Pairing Wine With Regional BBQ
Get lit with bottles that bring out the best in whatever you are smoking, roasting, grilling or charring.
No topic gets foodies fired up more than a debate about the best regional style of barbecue. There’s no definitive stance, but whether you’re a fan of tangy North Carolina pulled pork or a mesquite-smoked brisket, pouring the right wine is every bit as important as having enough slathering sauce on the side.
“As a fail-safe rule, barbecue-grilled meat is a perfect match for red wine,” says Eric Jensen, owner of Booker Wines in Paso Robles. “The umami and high fat from the meat balance out the tannin... and you have a symphony of delicious flavor from the two.” In broad strokes (of your sauce-covered barbecue brush), that generally translates to fruity and smoky wines for pulled pork and pepper—and tobacco-tinged, full-bodied ones for red meat.
Joseph Wagner, fifth generation winemaker and founder of Copper Cane Wines & Provisions in St. Helena, likes the expressiveness and naturally firm acidity of pinot noir with all different styles of barbecue from rich Alabama sauce to Texas-style mops to sweet Kansas City coatings. Chilling the bottle down to about 55 degrees “really cools down spicy foods and cuts through the fat of a steak,” he points out. And one of his favorite riffs on Memphis style barbecue are smoky and earthy bacon-wrapped mushrooms with a glass of pinot.
“Balanced fruit and oak in the wine and balanced smoke and spice on the meat” make for the best bbq and wine pairing, says Jessica Boone, winemaker for Passalacqua Winery in Healdsburg. Any bottles that have spent time in oak will have a whiff of smoke on the nose, often accompanied by toasty, nutty or cigar box flavors on the palate. “When this oak is perfectly integrated with the fruit it will complement many styles of barbecue and almost any grilled or smoked meat, fish or fowl.”
Sweeter-style sauces work with bold, black fruit-forward zinfandel, Boone says, while the fresh acidity of a crisp sauvignon blanc tamps down the richness of a creamy white sauce. Her favorite grill preparations let the protein shine through without being overwrought with sauce, vinegar or spice.
But don’t count out a glass of something whose hue matches that of your medium-rare brisket. “Whether it’s in the dry rub and/or marinade stage, the barbecuing or smoking stage, or the consuming stage (the best part), a glass of pink wine is not just refreshing but a delightful pairing,” declares Drew Nenow, head winemaker of ONX Wines in Paso Robles. “The refreshing acidity and vibrant body of the rosé cuts through spice and enriches your taste buds with a combination of savory and bright-fruited flavors.”
Here are some wines to try for different styles of barbecue—but consider them loose recommendations rather than strict rules. “Barbecue should be natural, delicious and totally free of pretension,” Jensen says. “Grilling out is about spending time with family and friends, so open a bottle because you truly love it, not because you think you’re supposed to.”
What it is: Pork spare ribs grilled and covered in a sweet, acidic and sticky sauce.
Wines to pour: High acid reds like grenache and sangiovese.
● 2017 Booker Wines Ripper ($85): “Bright fruit acidity mingles well with the slightly acidic sweetness of this town’s bbq scene,” Jensen says of this 100% grenache-based bottle.
● 2017 Caposaldo Chianti ($11), fruity and smooth, this wine with 75% sangiovese has balanced acidity and structure and a lengthy finish. (bronze, 2019 NYIWC)
What it is: Texas is big and varied enough to have four distinct styles of barbecue in one state. But each is marked by slowly cooking (usually) beef over mesquite, oak or hickory wood. East Texas style is marinated in a tomato-based sauce that has some sweetness, while South Texas style uses a thick molasses sauce.
Wines to pour: Bold reds that show some smokiness, like syrah.
● 2016 Penrose Hill Devil’s Advocate Red Wine Blend ($16), made with mostly syrah, this is dark in the glass with intense fruit and hints of mocha and oak. (double gold, 2019 NYIWC)
● 2014 Sanan Redmond Butterfly Red Wine ($45), a blend of syrah, merlot and cabernet franc with aromas and flavors of cherry, licorice, dark chocolate and oak. (gold, 2019 NYIWC)
What it is: Pork ribs and pork shoulders slowly-cooked in a pit and covered with either a dry spice rub or a thin, tangy and sweet sauce.
Wines to pour: Versatile, balanced reds like Meritage or Bordeaux blends.
● 2014 Mystic Hills Vineyard Unforgiven ($44), a blend of all five red Bordeaux grapes (including 50% cabernet sauvignon), with a nose of bright cherry, plum, boysenberry and cassis, full-bodied earthiness, leather, tart berries and plums on the palate with balanced tannins and acidity. (gold, 2019 NYIWC)
● 2015 Karamoor Estate Meritage ($35), with red cherries, leather, eucalyptus and easy drinkability. (silver, 2019 NYIWC)
What it is: Pork shoulder slow-cooked in a pit and seasoned with a thin sauce made of apple cider vinegar, ketchup and red pepper flakes (Western North Carolina), or all parts of the pig slow-cooked in a pit and seasoned with a thin sauce made from vinegar and pepper (Eastern North Carolina).
Wines to pour: Red or pink wines with enough acidity to match the overt vinegar-based sauces, like sangiovese and lighter-style pinot noir and rosé.
● 2017 Böen Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($31), bursting with red raspberry, tart cherry and blackberry on the nose and a palate of plum, cranberry and chocolate-covered cherries.
● 2018 Fleur de Mer Rosé ($18), a delicate French pink offering with signature watermelon, strawberry, cherry, refreshing acidity, medium-body and elegant finish. (bronze, 2019 NYIWC)
What it is: A variety of meats (beef, pork, chicken, lamb) that are rubbed with spices, slow-smoked over different woods and served with a thick, tomato-based sauce that’s usually sweet and spicy.
Wines to pour: Since there is so much variety in protein in this style, the sky’s the limit! But for beef or pork, try cabernet sauvignon, malbec or zinfandel.
● 2017 Artezin Mendocino Zinfandel ($17), “a pure varietal expression of red and black fruit with a hint of black pepper, spice and a concentrated finish,” says winemaker Randle Johnson of this sustainable offering.
● 2016 The Seeker Malbec ($14), dominated by aromas of red fruit and spice and a palate that’s smooth and robust with ripe black cherries and a spicy finish. (gold, 2019 NYIWC)
● 2016 DAOU Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($56), which has a “beautiful phenolic balance and varietal profile,” according to winemaker and co-proprietor Daniel Daou.
What it is: Chicken is smoked and roasted and served with a white sauce made from mayo, vinegar, salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper and occasionally sugar.
Wines to pour: High acid whites that cut the richness, like sauvignon blanc, grüner veltliner or Rueda—or rounder whites that match the rich sauce like pinot gris or mildly-oaked chardonnay or lighter-style reds or rosés.
● 2017 Booker of Paso Robles Oublié ($75), a blend of grenache, counoise and mourvèdre, “the light and elegant red is the perfect balance between class and comfort,” says Jensen.
● 2018 KG Domäne Baumgartner Rosenprinzessin Grüner Veltliner ($19), a refreshing white with pear, citrus, minerality and signature white pepper. (silver, 2019 NYIWC)
● 2018 Marqués de Cáceres Rueda Verdejo ($13), tart green apple and a hint of salinity dance on the palate of this zesty white.
What it is A barbecue style dating back 150 years in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara, California. Beef tri-tip is seasoned with black pepper, salt and garlic and cooked on an iron grill over coals of native red oak.
Wines to pour: Fruity reds like zinfandel, grenache or barbera, or smoky ones like Rhône blends.
● 2016 Ancient Peaks Winery Renegade ($26). The syrah’s savory notes meld with the meat’s seared exterior, the zin’s spiciness foils the peppery seasoning, and malbec and petit verdot add juiciness and structure, according to winemaker Stewart Cameron.
● 2017 Carnivor Zinfandel ($12), a wine made specifically o go with meat, with notes of blackberry, caramel and toasty oak. (bronze, 2019 NYIWC)