When most imagine traditional American barbecue, a glass of wine is usually not in the picture. Barbecue, in its many forms across the country, shares a common theme of being a no frills, down-home, food event. Whether we're talking pulled pork in North Carolina, braised brisket in Texas, or grilled tri-tip in California…all share this core characteristic. Sure, there are attempts to make barbecue into upscale cuisine. But when it comes down to it, barbecue is going to be represented by a smoking grill in someone's backyard or outside the back door of a restaurant. The primary difference between barbecuing versus grilling is the barbecue method of lower, indirect heat and smoke during cooking.
As we all know, another traditional centerpiece of barbecue is some form of super flavorful cooked meat. Pork, beef, chicken, wild game - there really are a lot of options. And let's sidestep the arguments that true barbecue is only one form of these…as some may bicker over. Equally, let's leave out the side discussion of sauce versus dry-rub…and leave that for people from saucy places such as the Carolinas, Memphis, and St. Louis to argue with dry-rub advocates. And there are even arguments among sauce advocates concerning vinegar or tomato-based sauces, with another question over the use of mustard in the Carolinas. So clearly, our regional variations of barbecue bring out a lot of diversity and passion.
But the question we're addressing today does not have to do with the barbecue itself, but what to drink with it. The majority of people will likely reach for a beer when they are having barbecue. An ice cold beer on a hot summer day is refreshing and barbecue food does tend to get prepared and enjoyed on the same kind of days. And there are excellent barbecue and beer pairing potentials. However, the same can be said for wine.
Tri-Tip/Brisket/Steak: All of these options are cuts of beef, so that gets us started with a preferred pairing with red wine. But before automatically thinking Cabernet Sauvignon…consider the barbecue component in the culinary equation. Think of grilled meat, so think of smokiness. Add to the mix some sort of rich, tangy sauce, marinade, or dry rub. Cabernet Sauvignon may indeed be a good match, but consider other red wine options as well which may match flavorful smoky beef cuts. Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah could all be excellent matches.
Pulled Pork: Pulled pork can be difficult. The variations and styles of it can remarkably influence the flavor profile of the pork itself. However, with pork being not as dense of a meat as beef, even with pulled pork doused in a tomato-based sauce (your typical barbecue sauce), the heavier reds as previously mentioned could be over-powering and not provide a good pairing. Lighter reds such as Pinot Noirs and Tempranillos would be better matches. For vinegar-based sauce pulled pork variations, steer clear altogether from red wines and go with a nice dry rosé or dry Riesling.
Ribs: Barbecue ribs come in two forms: beef or pork. However, unlike with pulled pork, there does not seem to be any competition from a non tomato-based barbecue sauce out there. And unlike our first beef cut discussion, with ribs you can count on the meat being slathered in barbecue sauce. So for either option, think of flavor, smoke, juiciness, and fat (but delicious fat!). This flavor profile could dominate Cabernet Sauvignon and it's better to go a little bigger on these… bold Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, and Zinfandels should do nicely.
Chicken: Without grilling or any kind of barbecue sauce involved, wine pairing with chicken is as versatile as the meat itself. Chicken is easily paired with red and white wines alike. However, toss in some smoky grill characteristics and/or sauces or rubs and we've got a new ball game. Oaky Chardonnays, dry Rosés, and dry Rieslings are all excellent potential white wine pairings. On the red side, stay away from heavy and stick with lighter reds such as Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, or lighter Rhône blends.
Wild Game: For all of our hunters and adventurous eaters out there, you've undoubtedly had some form of wild game barbecue in your lives. Assuming you'd have some sort of marinade or sauce, combined with the rustic gaminess of the meat and it being cooked over a grill, this is a time to try those different red wines you've been holding on to. Grenache or Mourvedre wines would be solid bets.
In closing, pairing wine with barbecue offers a unique opportunity to be creative and exploratory. Believe it or not, sparkling wines can be extremely palate cleansing with barbecue. And don't be afraid to try chilling red wines on hot summer days. Many can be surprisingly refreshing. Now it's time to get out the grill!