For those of us who are not experts in the world of wine selecting, finding the right type can be a daunting task. I drink wine. I like wine, but to be honest, until recently I hadn't given pairing wine with barbecue too much thought. After all, you eat what you like and you drink what you like so does it matter if the two match up? Well, apparently it does. If I understand what I'm told, the idea of wine pairing is to match the flavor intensity of the food with the wine you drink. A lightly flavored piece of fish is complemented by a mildly flavored wine. This way the flavor of one doesn't overpower the flavor of the other. For example, those of us who enjoy real barbecue can understand; imagine that you've been smoking a brisket for the better part of a day. You have the perfect rub and just the right amount of smoke. Now you want to match a sauce to your brisket. If you pick a barbecue sauce that is too strong you'll miss out on the flavor of the meat and the smoke. If on the other hand, the sauce is weak and watery it won't add anything to your barbecue.
Wine works the same way.
I know what a lot of you are going to say: wine is for, well, you know, those one kind of people that don't generally hang out in smoke-filled barbecue joints and don't know the first thing about good barbecue. Barbecue is made for beer (or in my opinion, the other way around). Well, let me say a few things about this. First of all, anyone serious about barbecue knows about flavor, knows about patience, and knows that aroma can be as important as taste. Secondly, many top BBQ competitors have been bitten by the wine bug and a number of vineyards that are getting very interested in barbecue. From the looks of it, BBQ and wine are here to stay and probably bound to become a bigger issue.
So how do you pair BBQ with wine? Wine pairing is one of those subjects that is going to get you a dozen answers for every 12 questions you ask. This is great news for you and me because it gives us Rule 1: Drink Wines you Like and Don't Worry too Much about what Others Say. After all, why drink a wine you don't like. Sounds obvious but I know a few people so obsessed with wine pairing that they take any experts opinion and choke down wines they can't stand. The best way to find those wines you like is Rule 2: Experiment. You've been doing it for years with barbecue, now start picking up wines and give them a try. Remember Rule 3: Keep Notes on the Wines You Try, because you know you are going to forget; after all, you might be drinking later.
The basic theory of wine pairing is the match the intensity of flavor of a wine with the flavor of the food. If you are dealing with subtle flavors then you want a delicately flavored wine. Delicate and sophisticated wines tend to be expensive so, Rule 4: Save your Money. I'm not saying buy the cheapest wine you can find, but the heavy flavors of barbecue are well matched by less expensive wines.
The other side of the wine pairing equation is something "wine people", call body. In simple terms, this refers to the "thickness" of a wine. A light Pinot Grigio may not hold up next to a heavily smoked rack of ribs with a spicy sauce but it would be excellent with grilled fish or vegetables. On the other side of the scale, a Cabernet Sauvignon complements a nice thick grilled steak or smoked brisket but would kick a lightly seasoned chicken breast off your plate. If you know anything about wine you will probably notice Rule 5: Reds Go Better with Barbecue than Whites. This rule can be overridden by Rule 1, so don't be afraid to break it.
Another aspect of wine is the flavor itself surprisingly enough. Some wines like a Pinot Noir are sweet while others can be more tart like a Chardonnay. Sounds like barbecue sauce to me but I tend to have a one-track mind. You want to try and balance the flavor of the wine with the food where possible. Of course, this is easier said than done and tends to be the most subjective part of wine pairing. The basic idea is Rule 6: Sweet Wine for Spicy Foods and a Tart Wine for Sweet Foods. This really is a rule made to be broken but give it a try. Sweet wines are particularly good at taking the heat out of spicy foods.
As I said before, there are a lot of people who know more about wines than I do and can provide specific advice about vineyards, vintages, and varietals (try my friend Stacy Slinkard). This means that your best bet is Rule 7: When in Doubt, Ask. It also means that it is a great idea for you to share your findings and I invite you to look a little lower on this page where you can respond with your thoughts, findings, and ideas about your favorite BBQ and wine pairings.
By this point, you are probably either underwhelmed with the wealth of information or completely lost so I will leave you with a basic recommendation. When pairing grilled or smoked meats and you need to grab a bottle of wine but have no clue what to get aim for a Zinfandel for a red or a Chardonnay for a wine. These wines work well for most cookout occasions and are great choices to take to a barbecue when you don't know exactly what is on the menu.
On a final note Rule 8: Don't Follow Too Many Rules, make your own rules as you go.