If you typically reach for a beer when you’re grilling your dinner, try an experiment: pour a glass of wine. The flavor fireworks that result are well worth it. The key to a perfect match is to remember that grilling enhances a food’s sweetness and adds smoky flavor. Starches in vegetables, breads and grains and the fats in meats, poultry and seafood caramelize on the grill and become sweeter. (Think: grilled corn, onions or shrimp.) Smoky flavors come from the char where foods touch the grill rack or from the smoke itself.
When looking for wines to pair with grilled fare, there are two characteristics you want to search out—fruitiness and oakiness. Ripe, fruity wines match the enhanced sweetness of grilled food. Oaky wines will match the smokiness. And if you find a wine with both characteristics, all the better.
To find these qualities in wine, I most often turn to California and Washington wines—they have the ripe fruit intensity needed to stand up to grilled food. Particularly suited for the grill are wines made from the fullest-bodied grapes: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for whites, Merlot/Cabernet blends and Syrah for reds. Look for bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc labeled “fumé blanc,” which is a smoky barrel-fermented style—there’s none better than Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Fumé Blanc 2006 ($20). Best-bet Chardonnays are those labeled “barrel fermented” or “barrel aged,” again for the smokiness—look for R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Chardonnay 2006 ($16). A great red for grilled fare—even with veggies like eggplant or fennel—is the lush and toasty Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($20).
Four Wine Pairings with Grilled Recipes
Grilled Pork Tenderloin & Apricot Salad
Barrel-fermented Chardonnay harmonizes beautifully with the smoky-sweetnness of grilled apricots. Look for Flora Springs Napa Valley Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2006 ($27), full of stone-fruit and grilled pineapple flavors.
Duck & Strawberry Salad with Rhubarb Dressing
Showcase the fruity, tangy dressing and the smoky grilled duck with the smoky, raspberry character of Columbia Crest Reserve Syrah 2004 ($24).
Grilled Tuna with Parsley-Olive Relish
The black olives in the relish call for a ripe and savory Cabernet Sauvignon to stand up to their herbaceous, savory brininess. Look for the smoky, tarry and cassis flavors of Estancia Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($15) from California.
Smoky Bison Burger
Juicy, smoky Sonoma Merlot is tailor-made for the Smoky Bison Burgers. The plummy fruit in Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Merlot 2005 ($15) is a delicious contrast with the cheesy flavors too.
—Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson has a new online video wine course at andreawine.com.