Robust red wines, such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah have long been the default choice when it comes to pairing wine with summer grilling. But times have changed and we’re grilling a lot more than dogs, burgers and steaks these days. And, even when it comes to big reds, there are a lot of new regions and varieties in play now.
In this wine pairing guide, I’ll give you some general principles for matching wine with grilled food, followed by a variety of wine recommendations for the different types of food you’re likely to throw on your gas or charcoal grill during the summer, and beyond.
First things, first.
Traditional grilling is a fast, dry cooking process. It works best with lean, tender meats. Because chewy, tannic wines need fatty or collagen-rich meats for easy drinking, the most palatable wines with grilled meals are those with gentle texture.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid sturdy varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Sirah. They can be great choices. Just be sure those wines have some bottle age or have been thoroughly decanted so the tannins have softened.
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.
Grilling usually contributes flavors of smoke, sometimes even char. Those accents can be strong enough to overwhelm delicate or nuanced wines. Save your long-aged Burgundy and Bordeaux for meals that let them shine without competition from aggressively flavored food.
On the other hand, oak flavors in a heavily wooded wine on top of grill smoke can be overwhelming. Some oak influence is fine, but it should be in the background.
Smoke and char are bitter flavors. There are two very different ways to approach pairing wine with bitter foods:
- Sweetness balances bitterness. Fruit-forward wines create a harmonious balance with smoky or charred food. This back and forth of bitter and sweet is both interesting and appetizing, always making you want another bite or sip.
- Another approach is to match bitter with bitter. This is common in Europe where wines tend to be more savory. Matching wine and food this way provides a consistent flavor direction with neither detracting from the other. Remember not to go overboard with the bitter though.
Are you getting saucy?
When pairing wines with food, sauces and side dishes are often more important than the protein. This is certainly true for grilled meals. Typical add-ons, such as BBQ sauce, fruit-based glazes and even ketchup, are sweet. So too, baked beans and some cole slaws. Sweetness in foods kill the fruit in wines which lack residual sugar - that can make the wine very unappealing. As a general rule, wines should be as sweet, or even sweeter, than the foods they are paired with.
Below are suggested wine pairings for grilled foods. In each category, I offer recommendations for fruit-forward wines which will contrast with the food, savory wines for matching bitterness, and, for the adventurous, less well-known wines and pairings to have fun with.
Wine Pairing Guide for Summer Grilling
1. Wine Pairings for Grilled Steak (lean cuts)
Filet mignon, tri-tip and other very lean steaks call for smooth wines with moderate body.
- Fruit-forward: New World Merlot or Cabernet Franc; Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands, Carneros or Sta. Rita Hills; Sonoma County Zinfandel; Argentinian Malbec
- Savory: Pinot Noir from New Zealand; Right Bank Bordeaux
- Adventurous: Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG from Sicily (a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, with ripe fruit and soft tannins); high-quality Chilean Carmenere will match the grilling smoke with smoke and ripe fruit.
2. Wine Pairings for Grilled Steak (marbled cuts)
Well-marbled cuts, such as ribeye and strip steaks, marry well with more tannic and full-bodied red wines. (Note that as steaks are cooked past medium-rare, they work decreasingly well with tannic wines.)
- Fruit-forward: New World Cabernet Sauvignon; Australian Shiraz; Santa Barbara County Syrah; Chianti Classico; Brunello di Montalcino; Chateauneuf du Pape; Amarone della Valpolicella; Toro or Ribeira del Duero reds (ripe, robust blends of Tempranillo and Grenache); Petite Sirah from Napa Valley or Livermore Valley
- Savory: Bordeaux red, especially from the left bank; Super Tuscan reds; Chianti Classico
- Adventurous: Xinomavro from Naoussa (a robust, tannic red from Greece); Priorat reds (rich Spanish blends of Grenache and Carignane with Merlot, Syrah, etc.); Madiran (Tannat-based red wine from southwestern France)
3. Wine pairings for grilled lamb chops
- Fruit-forward: Chateauneuf du Pape; Cotes du Rhone; Rioja reds; Petite Sirah from Napa Valley or Livermore Valley
- Savory: Northern Rhone Syrah; Bordeaux reds; Chinon; New Zealand Pinot Noir; Spanish Grenache (Garnacha), especially from Calatayud or Campo de Borja
- Adventurous: Cannonau (Sardinian Grenache); Carmignano DOCG (mostly Sangiovese with up to 20% Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc)
4. Wine pairings for grilled sausages
- Fruit-forward: California Pinot Noir; Barbera; Zinfandel
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; Bourgueil; Chianti Classico
- Adventurous: Sardinian Cannonau (Grenache), especially for lamb or wild boar sausage; Spatburgunder (German Pinot Noir which is usually extremely savory); Riesling (especially for spicy or white sausages)
5. Wine pairings for grilled hamburgers
- Fruit-forward: New World Merlot; Beaujolais; Barbera
- Savory: Right Bank Bordeaux
- Adventurous: Sicilian Frappato (somewhat Pinot-like with medium body, friendly fruit and soft tannins); Pinotage, an earthy, smoky red most commonly from South Africa
6. Wine pairings for grilled pork loin
- Fruit-forward: New World Pinot Noir; New World Merlot; German or Alsatian Riesling (especially if there’s a sweet or sour sauce); Zinfandel; New World rosé
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; Red Burgundy; Chianti; Tavel rosé
- Adventurous: Gewurtztraminer from Alsace or Anderson Valley
7. Wine pairings for hot dogs
- Fruit-forward: California or Oregon Pinot Noir; Beaujolais; Riesling from Germany or Alsace; Zinfandel; New World or Spanish rosé
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; French rosé
- Adventurous: Pinot Gris from Oregon or Alsace; off-dry Vouvray (Chenin Blanc); Lambrusco
8. Wine pairings for grilled chicken (dark meat)
- Fruit-forward: Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir; New World Chardonnay; Beaujolais (not from Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent or Julienas); Zinfandel
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; Cote du Rhone
- Adventurous: Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt (Austrian reds somewhat similar to Pinot Noir but more savory and spicy); Trousseau Gris from Sonoma County; Qvevri-aged Rkatsiteli from the Republic of Georgia (slightly oxidized, tannic white wine with flavors of walnuts and apricot)
9. Wine pairings for grilled chicken (white meat)
- Fruit-forward: Lightly oaked Chardonnay from the New World; Pinot Gris from Oregon or Alsace; Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley or Willamette Valley; New World rosé
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; lightly oaked white Burgundy; French rosé, especially from Tavel or Provence; Pouilly Fumé (smoky Sauvignon Blanc); Vermentino
- Adventurous: Bordeaux Blanc; Rioja Blanco
10. Wine pairings for grilled salmon
- Fruit-forward: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir; Beaujolais (not from Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent or Julienas); Chardonnay from California, Australia or Italy (something on the rich side)
- Savory: New Zealand Pinot Noir; red Burgundy; Chinon
- Adventurous: Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon; dryish Brachetto d’Acqui
11. Wine pairings for grilled white fish and shellfish
- Fruit-forward: Chardonnay from California, Australia, Chile or Italy; Albariño, including Vinho Verde; Pinot Gris from Oregon or Italy; New World Rosé; Verdejo/Verdehlo
- Savory: Pouilly Fumé (smoky Sauvignon Blanc); Old World Rosé; Vermentino
- Adventurous: Etna Bianco; Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc
12. Wine pairings for grilled veggies
- Fruit-forward: Riesling from Alsace or Germany; Chardonnay from California, Australia or Chile; New World Sauvignon Blanc, including Australian Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends; Beaujolais (not from Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent or Julienas); New World Rosé
- Savory: Grüner Veltliner; Pouilly-Fumé (smoky Sauvignon Blanc)
- Adventurous: Zinfandel
If my wine parings for grilled food make you hungry for smoky goodness, these links will help you satisfy the cravings.
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.