For seasonal food and wine perfection, few things can top a cookout. A favourite grill experience was at a tiny remote cottage with no electricity in Uruguay, the vacation retreat of Argentine celeb chef Francis Mallmann, who popularised traditional open-flame techniques internationally.
Everything was cooked on a hand-forged grill over a sparking fire surrounded by stones. Under a dark sky sprinkled with stars, at a table lit by candles of all sizes, thick-crusted, sizzling steaks with tiny grilled potatoes and accompaniments all kissed with char, were served. Later, Mallmann read from poetry books pulled from piles stacked precariously around the house. Naturally, there were reds and whites to match the mood, the weather, the food, the poems.
This summer, one will be grilling everything—steak, chicken, salmon, asparagus, fresh corn, firm peaches at the peak of ripeness, and even endive and lettuce. If you plan to as well, let the enticing, slightly bitter, and salty taste that smoke lends to the underlying flavors of grilled foods should tune your choice of what to drink.
Below you’ll find a list of nine no-fail wines that go great with a grilled meal, from least to most expensive in each category. If your local store doesn’t stock them, heed the following wine-pairing tips culled from experience as well as from the expertise of Jordan Mackay, wine writer and co-author with Texas barbecue guru Aaron Franklin of the bestselling Franklin Barbecue and Franklin Steak, and the forthcoming Franklin Smoke.
Don’t pick wines that are too subtle or shy in flavor. This is Mackay’s biggest no-no. The robust flavor that grilling adds needs equally bold wines. By which, he means, concentrated and with personality, but not heavy or high in alcohol. The nuances of a complex wine will be lost. Ditto for whites.
Opt for low-oak wines. You might think the no-brainer match would be seriously oaky wines with similar smoky overtones. Not the case, Mackay says. Instead of blending together, the smoky char makes the oak in wine stand out but not in a good way.
Consider the meat, the rub, and the sauce. Char-grilled steaks need a bold red with some tannin to break down the meat’s fat. Conversely, succulent pork ribs coated with a deep, sweet, tangy barbecue sauce or a spice-and-vinegar-rubbed chicken are best with a lively, high-acid, low-tannin red that can be chilled; pinot noir is a good choice.
Yes, rosé is an all-purpose winner. Mackay is “a bit bored” with those ubiquitous light pink wines that taste the same. Instead he suggests darker, richer examples with more fruit and character to counter the smokiness. They’ll be delicious with salmon and especially with vegetables such as zucchini.
Bubbles go with almost everything, except red meat. Drinking bubbly with barbecued chicken at the beach is a peak wine and food experience. The combination of fizz and bright acidity counterbalance salty, spicy, sweet, and smoky flavors.
Nine Best Wines for Grilled Food
2020 Fattoria le Pupille Morellino di Scansano: With tangy cherry and cinnamon flavors, this gulpable, easygoing Italian red is made from mostly sangiovese grapes. Think cheeseburgers, veggie burgers, and mustard-coated chicken breasts.
2021 Las Jaras Glou Glou: Light-bodied and refreshing but intensely flavoured, this chillable organic red from Mendocino is a perfect burger and hot dog wine.
Also read: Beware of counterfeit Bordeaux wine
2019 Domaine Faury Saint Joseph Rouge: Medium-bodied and silky-textured, this northern Rhône red with expansive black pepper and olive aromas is Mackay’s ideal partner for smoked chicken. It’s concentrated but also balanced and elegant.
2019 Familia Zuccardi Poligonos Paraje Altamira Malbec: Argentina, land of asado, is a country that takes meat and grilling seriously. The top wine partner is often a dark, fruity malbec. This juicy high-altitude offering is intense and deep.
2019 Singer Baker Lane Estate Syrah: Owner Stephen Singer and his daughter, Fanny, released this lush West Sonoma Coast red in May. Its savoury, peppery, dark-toned fruit will highlight your very best steaks.
2021 Chacra Nacha Pinot Noir Rosé: Dry, fresh, rosés with fruity spice and tart acidity stand up to char, sweet marinades, and barbecue sauce better than you’d think. This one is from a biodynamic vineyard in Patagonia.
2021 Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé: If you must have a pink wine from Provence, go for this rich, full-bodied, floral-scented option from an estate on the Mediterranean. Try it with herb-rubbed lamb or chicken.
NV Domaine Chandon Brut Rosé: Bright and light, with notes of red fruit, this widely available California sparkler is delicious with juicy grilled burgers and sausages. It’s also available in aluminum mini bottles by the case from the winery.
2019 Llopart Rosé Brut Reserva Corpinnat: Rosé fizz is a favorite pairing with Buffalo chicken wings, garlicky grilled shrimp, even grilled halloumi cheese. This crisp-textured sparkler comes from an organic Spanish producer.