Wines for Summer Grilling

By W. Peter Hoyne

As we enter the final phase of summer, there is still ample opportunity to fire up the grill, savor a glass of wine and relax on the patio with friends. This might be the ideal opportunity to indulge in the comforts of a spice-rubbed leg of lamb with a robust Zinfandel or perhaps a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc or rose´ alongside a wood grilled halibut with lime butter sauce. The best advice might be to keep it simple while basking in the warm outdoor weather and catching a glimpse of sunset.

The easiest route to understanding alfresco food and wine pairing is to start from the beginning with an understanding of the spicy, richly textured, and dark-skinned grape of Zinfandel. This distinctive red grape has regained the respect that it lost during the evolution of the illustrious White Zinfandel crusade of the 80’s. Its origin for the past several decades has been rather elusive with a discovery that it was a genetic match with southern Italy’s Primitivo grape. Its DNA was also traced to the obscure 16th century Tribidrag grape from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Regardless of its parents, Zinfandel made the transatlantic journey to the United States in the 1800’s and became well established in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada during the gold rush period. Zinfandel had been found in some vineyards with field blends of Petit Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouchet. It is a hardy grape that thrives in the warm inland regions of northern California with old vine plantings dating back over 100 years. Referred to as “America’s heritage grape,” Zinfandel has a passionate following of casual, fun loving consumers who recognize its ancestry as truly patriotic. With age, Zinfandel can transform its spicy, brambly personality into a complex-styled blend of exotic red and blue fruits.

Some Zinfandels will easily complement the savory elements of hearty summer foods including smoked or grilled country-style ribs, sausages or even your own craft burger. Chiles, spices and dry rubs with a subtle amount of heat will gently pair with the spiciness of intense Zinfandels. Should your decision rest with a Biale Zinfandel, you will notice that it will find affinity with almost any presentation including poultry, fish, meats or even a Northern Italian creation.

If you’re partial to the heat of Cayenne or Habanero peppers, it may be best to lean toward a Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley or Willamette Valley, Oregon. Even a Tempranillo or Grenache from the Rioja region of Spain will tone down any spice, bringing the food back in balance. When the outdoor temperature is ratcheting up, place a little chill on your reds as it will help in their overall enjoyment. Don’t forget the versatility of Pinot Noir as it is the ultimate companion for salmon, especially with a side of charred cherry tomatoes and portobello mushrooms.

White meats such as veal or pork may be a better complement with soft, fruit-driven reds. Be watchful of wines with higher alcohols as they intensify the heat within food. Muscular reds such as Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with their higher tannin content can easily cut through the rich fat within grilled meats. Reds that are heavily oaked may go well with a charred steak or brisket, but they may add a bitter component to your food. Knowing your ingredients will allow you to make the right selection for your guests.

When I think of outdoors in the summer, I am inclined to drink something cool and refreshing. Whites are versatile and the perfect accompaniment to most grilled fish and poultry with their bright vibrant flavors and delicate acidity. They will leave your palate quenched and refreshed, leading you to one final sip. White varietals include elegant Pinot Gris from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, crisp Albarino and Verdejo from Spain, the exhilarating minerality of Sancerre from the Loire region of France and a host of others. The bracing acidity and dried citrus fruit of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and California, and floral Rieslings from Germany and Alsace also have their place on the patio. White wines with higher acidity will effortlessly slice through a rich butter sauce served on top of grilled seafood. The bracing acidity in sparkling wines or an Italian white can also counterbalance salt and butter. On the other side of the flavor spectrum, off-dry or slightly sweet whites will easily tone down the spicy characteristics of any preparation, canceling out the heat within the dish. Sweeter whites will also find harmony with a side of dried fruit chutney, or they can be used to take the edge off more tart foods.

Not to be forgotten is the master of whites, Chardonnay, from nearly every wine-growing region of the world. Chardonnay has an array of flavor profiles and wood tones. They offer a spectrum of tree ripened fruits, yellow citrus elements and are delicately laden with spice. The best Chardonnay food pairing will be those that are slightly mineral driven with fresh acidity and have less of an oak influence. These types of wines may work best with a roast chicken with garlic or grilled fish tacos. Chardonnays that are rich, buttery and powerful can be a bit clumsy. Yet, a delicately oaked, fruit forward Chardonnay can be sublime with sweet shellfish such as lobster or prawns.

Often overlooked is rose´. After touring through Provence for several weeks, I found Provencal rose´ to be some of the most gastronomic wines on the market. They go beyond poolside entertaining and have an affinity to work with any cuisine, especially during the summer. These wines are dry in personality with pale, red currant fruits. The hint of tangerine minerality and complex overtones in these medium bodied wines will embrace any dish with ease or they can be savored without a companion. The best part about rose´ may be their affordable price point. Pinot Noir, Syrah or Grenache varieties are the foundation for many of these wines. California, Oregon, Spain, Italy, and other countries have made great strides in the last decade catching up to the increasing US demand for rose´.

While some rose´ can be fruit driven with strawberries and red stone fruits, others can be dark and bold taking center stage on the table. Whatever your decision is for seasonal backyard dining, just be willing to explore the many savory options that will make your grilling more stylish and festive at the same time.