The most important rule to consider when pairing wine is to match beverage options with people and settings, and everything else will fall into blissful harmony. As much as a host may believe a certain prestigious or pricy bottle is perfectly matched to their brisket, the circumstances of the event may dictate otherwise, and could actually make the pairing fall flat in contrast. The best advice we can give is to start with the type of event and style of guests, then pair with the food as a secondary step.
Pairing for the event style itself can be helpful in making decisions. Will guests be milling about while the cooking process is taking place, sipping on wine to freshen up their appetites? If so, be sure to lead off with zippy, citrus-driven white or rosé styles with high acid to perk up taste buds and get the crowd salivating. Will the gathering be more intimate, with foods being prepared ahead of time? Steer towards pairing directly with the dishes being served, and increase the quality for the smaller, more focused group.
Generally, when pairing something as traditional and integral to home cooking culture as barbecue, go with unpretentious, accessible styles that sit comfortably alongside plates of sweet, smoky short ribs and crunchy coleslaw. This will create an unassuming (but reliably delicious) end result.
As with any style of food, there are no wrong answers to pairing — but there are definitely options better-suited than others. There are several well-known styles of American barbecue, which is the easiest format to discern which wines to choose.
Carolina-style barbecue traditionally highlights an array of pork cuts that are slow-cooked over hardwood like hickory while being basted in a sweet, tangy vinegar-based sauce. Some styles of Carolina barbecue (South Carolina, generally) also feature mustard in the sauce.
This heavy reliance on pork accented by tangy sauce makes this style of barbecue particularly well-suited for French rosés, either sparkling or still. Look for regions from southern France like Provence or Languedoc for still selections and unassuming but delicious Crémant styles from Loire, Bourgogne, or Alsace for sparkling. Medium-bodied Italian reds like Chianti and Barbera also accent the richness of pork and the tanginess of the sauce without overpowering the meal.
Texas is the land of the longhorn cattle, so it's no surprise that Texas barbecue is traditionally beef-based. The meats are often smoked pit-style over mesquite wood, and an unsweetened, thinner vinegar-based sauce served is alongside to wet the meat. Unlike Carolina or Kansas City styles, which feature signature sauces, Texas barbecue is often served "dry."
The smoky depths of this beefy style makes it a perfect pairing for more structured, bolder reds like Zinfandel, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Argentina, or Washington.
Kansas City Barbecue
This style of barbecue is hallmarked by its wide and varied use of different meats to include pork, beef, chicken, sausage, and occasionally fish that's slow-smoked over a variety of woods, but most often hickory. Kansas City-style sauce is what most diners traditionally think of when considering barbecue sauce: A smoky, sweet tomato-based style that is slathered over the meats after they've been cooking for several hours.
Kansas City-style chicken or fish showcases the depths of smoky richness on white meats. Pair this style with richer, structured whites that showcase crisp acid, like Chardonnay from Sonoma, Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, or richer styles of Pinot Gris from Oregon or Alsace. When pairing with heavier meats like pork, beef, and sausage, look for juicy but earthy selections like Grenache from Spain or southern France, or Syrah/Shiraz from California or Australia. Perhaps combine the two grapes and grab a GSM or Rhone-style blend from Washington.
Memphis’ main focus is pork — specifically pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. The ribs generally go one of two directions: Either dry-rubbed or “wet,” which is mopped with sauce during cooking and afterward.
Dry-rubbed pork calls for a thirst-quenching white with perhaps a dash of residual sugar to tame the spice, like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. If a red is more your style, consider medium-bodied Old World reds such as the Tempranillo-based Rioja, or Sangiovese-driven Chianti.
Hawaii and Polynesia are known for delicious, diverse styles of barbecue that often feature locally available ingredients like pineapple, ginger, and Asian spices layered on pork and sausage. Juicy, off-dry whites like unoaked Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, or Riesling often pair well against the spicy, aromatic flavors.
Alabama barbecue features a unique white sauce made from mayonnaise and vinegar that's used as a condiment on smoked or grilled chicken. Crisp styles of Chardonnay such as Chablis or unoaked Chardonnay from California show well alongside the creamy tartness of this dish.
California barbecue draws much of its flavor profile from the Native American cultures and from the later Spanish and Mexican influences. Most commonly, barbecue here revolves around juicy tri-tip seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and garlic served alongside stewed beans and pico de gallo. For this style of barbecue, lean into bigger styles of rosé, such as Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Tavel, or even higher-extracted domestic rosés based on Grenache or Pinot Noir. If reds are preferred, seek out wines with softer tannins and fruity richness, such as Spanish Garnacha or California Zinfandel.