Plus, some excellent pairing advice from a top winery and sommelier.
clinking wine glasses at an outdoor table
Credit: Getty Images / pixdeluxe

West Tennessee-based pitmaster Pat Martin is on a mission to preserve the regional tradition of whole-hog barbecue. And if you've ever been to one of his barbecue joints across the Southeast, you'll be more than willing to help him carry the torch. The acclaimed pitmaster and restaurateur recently released Life of Fire, a stunning cookbook with Clarkson Potter, that walks through every single step of making whole-hog barbecue at home and could make even those with the least kitchen confidence want to spend a weekend turning their backyard into an open pit for roasting. Don't worry, there are also plenty of simpler recipes that are sure to become instant classics in your kitchen, like Whole Chicken with Alabama White Sauce and his mother's best Southern desserts.

However, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book (in my opinion) was a section making the case for pairing wine instead of beer—and especially bourbon—with these delicious barbecue recipes. I chatted with Martin about why this was such an important addition to the book and asked his thoughts on which wines pair best with these West Tennessee-style dishes.

"We're the only country in the world that associates wine with fine dining, think about that," says Martin. "We treat wine as some magical thing when wine is supposed to be for simple people and for simple meals."

Martin says he serves wine in jelly jars at his restaurants to take away the pretentiousness that is often associated with wine in the States and to make it feel more accessible to customers. In his book, Martin explains that, especially in the South, wine isn't really part of the culinary vernacular unless you're talking about muscadine wine made with grapes grown across his native West Tennessee and Mississippi. Instead, you'll most often find barbecue paired with domestic light beers, sweet tea or a Coca-Cola. However, he writes that West Tennessee-style barbecue is begging to be paired with wine because of its subtle flavor, slight smokiness and succulence.

"This is one alcoholic beverage that will enhance your meal, so why not use it?" says Martin. "Beer doesn't really enhance your meal, and bourbon shouldn't be served with your meal, period, because it just kills your whole palate. I'm asking you to drink wine and particularly what I refer to as village wines. I'm not not talking about these giant California cabs or buttery, oak-filled Chardonnays—natural wines will work just fine."

While we appreciate Martin's exuberance, there are several beers that can pair well with food of all kinds. That said, we absolutely agree that wine and barbecue are an underrated duo.

pitmaster with wood burning in barrel
Credit: Courtesy Penguin Random House

How to Pair BBQ with Wine

Martin's book features further details on his favorite wines to pair with certain types of meats and specific cuts, as well as storage and drinking tips to derive the most pleasure from a simple yet satisfying meal. When it comes to West Tennessee's whole-hog barbecue, Martin's favorite pairings are bright, slightly tannic carignan or a dry, European-style pinot noir, and he says you can never go wrong with Champagne and smoked chicken.

We also asked the folks at the ever-popular Scribe Winery, where Martin hosts an annual dinner each August, and George Miliotes, master sommelier and proprietor of Wine Bar George at Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida, to share their top recs for various types of barbecue. Scribe says that Martin loves their Estate Riesling, and with good reason, as it has a vibrancy that recharges the palate and manages to cut through the barbecue fat in a refreshing way. They also recommend their chilled red Mission wine, which is a bit spicier and has pleasing rustic texture that makes for a beautiful barbecue pairing.

"Barbecue is about the fatty richness that is innate to the low and slow cook that is barbecue," says Miliotes. "The acidity, or crispness, of wines plays off the richness, making each bite of the barbecue taste as flavorful as the first."

We asked Miliotes to round out our list by sharing pairings for other popular styles of regional barbecue across the U.S. He notes that the fruitfulness or residual sweetness in the wines he recommends helps offset any spice in the barbecue to ensure each bite is as delicious as the first.

  • Texas BBQ: "Texas barbecue demands a riesling—German kabinett or halbtrocken. The crispness of the riesling allows the richness of the 'cue to show through, while the touch of sweetness complements the spiciness."
  • Kansas City BBQ: Miliotes says that fans of Kansas City barbecue will do well to lean into a tannic red wine, and advises opting for a top-quality cru Beaujolais.
  • North Carolina BBQ: "The epic trio of smoky, spicy and sweet in North Carolina barbecue presents the opportunity for vouvray to shine as a wine pairing. Vouvray's fruitiness works with the spicy, acidity offsets the smoky, and minerality complements the sweet."
  • South Carolina BBQ: Miliotes says there's something special about cross-cultural food and wine pairings, and he loves to serve South Carolina barbecue with Champagne. He says that the wine shows off the tangy yellow mustard and vinegar nuances of this type of regional barbecue perfectly.

At the end of the day, Martin says that offering wine pairings is relative, and it's important to consider which varietals you enjoy most to get the best possible dining experience, whether you're at one of his restaurants, cooking over an open pit in your backyard or at a fancy event. Let this pairing advice inspire a bit of experimentation with new-to-you varietals and an epic weekend of making whole-hog barbecue with your loved ones. Needless to say, you'll need plenty of wine.