Ever since the winter finally departed Chicago about a week ago, people are relishing the mild May as virtual summer. Although it still might be a little early for skinny dipping in Lake Michigan (it’s never in season for some folks), many are dusting off their Gary Wiviott books, scraping the grill grates and firing up their kettles, green eggs and smokers.
Conveniently, May has been designated National Barbecue Month. But, amid the irrational exuberance over temperatures in the low 60s and the intoxicating smell of a charcoal fire, don’t make a rushed or reflexive reach for beer. (Note: this column is NOT against beer intake; next week is Beer Week!) Choosing a good value wine can make for great barbecue pairings and accentuate the blissful backyard experience.
“When making barbecued and grilled meats, it’s best to pair them with red wines that have a good balance of fruitiness and some decent structure,” says Charla Sweeley of Wine Discount Center. “But don’t get too tannic,” she warns. This means keep the high-end Cabernet and Bordeaux aging in the cellar until (groan) the holidays.
Varietals like Zinfandel, Italian Primitivo, Bonarda (Italian origins; Argentine cultivation) and Carignan provide bold, yet round and fruit-forward traits. These wines are often tremendous values, and will enhance not only the sauciness of barbecued foods, but also the participants at these joyously boisterous gatherings.
Choose a Zinfandel carefully, though. Some are quite jammy – and although that taste pairs with a sweeter, honey-based barbecue sauce, there are better choices for beer-can-chicken or a smoky brisket. For a Zin that not only is versatile enough to pivot between poultry and pork/beef, try the Dashe Dry Creek Valley 2008. This is the epitome of well-made California Zinfandel – not full-throttle, but lots of complexity. It’s juicy, yet structured; muscular, but with a refined finish. $18.
Primitivo, from the Puglia region in southeastern Italy, is generally more medium-bodied. It’s been called a matron of Zin and frankly, it’s not as unruly as some of her American offspring. The Feudi di San Marzano 2009 has lots of black cherry and an approachable roundness, plus an interesting herbal character in the finish. Barbecued ribs and chicken are nice pairings. Also, try Italian-seasoned pork chops – a nice option to cook over direct heat on a hectic weeknight. Then, sit down and relax with this delightful Primitivo, a steal at $14.
Bonarda, which is actually neck-and-neck popular Malbec for yield output in Argentina, has an Italian heritage like Primitivo. But, just as with Zinfandel, its home is in the New World. However, “there’s a lot of Italian heritage in Argentine winemaking,” says Michael Taylor, wine director at The Italian Village. This keeps a certain European sensibility intact in its production. Bonarda’s round, dark-fruit profile is a great match for heavily brushed or mopped barbecue – with the appropriate sauces (not hickory). Think of Bonarda as a bottled, quaffable version of a 1967 Buick Skylark convertible: Plenty of power, with sophisticated body. Closest value-priced Bonarda to match this classic style? Zolo Mendoza 2009: $12.
Then, for the brawniest barbecue, for something straight from the smoker, with lots of wood chips – or a low-and-slow pork butt laden with a savory and piquant rub – try a Carignan. Not for the faint of heart (a group that probably doesn’t embrace the barbecue genre anyway), Carignan is somewhat rustic – a widely planted grape that is mostly used in blends from the Languedoc region in southern France. It is often astringent and acidic, but from when well made from old vines, Carignan produces a booming, big-as-Texas barbecue wine. An example of this is the Cline Old Vine Carignan 2008, with lots of dark fruit, ripe plum, black pepper and a bit of coffee. $14.