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Choosing Wines for Grilled Food

Grilled foods give you a chance to try robust wines that would overpower delicate dishes

Fine Cooking Issue 66
Photo: Scott Phillips
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It’s grilling time, and the seasonings you’ll use on foods destined for the grill, combined with the smoky flavors grilling imparts, are some of the most intense preparations around. Such intensity calls for wines with big flavor, youthful fruit, and the robust influence of oak aging—qualities that happen to go well with smoky flavors. Whether you want a red or a white, here’s how to step up and match the grill’s intensity with the right kind of wine.

What makes a wine taste big?

Oak. The oak barrels in which wine is aged add aromas and flavors of vanilla, baking spices, smoke, and sometimes just plain wood. The oak itself also adds tannins to the wine, along with an astringent, even bitter quality in extreme cases. Such wines overpower delicate dishes but can work well with grilled ones.

Malolactic fermentation. ML, as it is often called, is a process that most wines go through before bottling; you may have heard of it in reference to Chardonnay. Here, much of the tart malic acid (like that found in green apples) is transformed into softer, creamier lactic acid (like that found in dairy products). ML also creates a byproduct called diacytel (die-a-suh-teel), which smells and tastes like butter. This imparts a rich flavor much sought by Chardonnay lovers.

Grape variety. Intensity of flavor is what you need in wines that work best with grilling. Intense reds tend to come from thick-skinned grape varieties grown in warm, sunny climates, where the fruit ripens well.

Tannins. Tannic acid comes from the skins of the grape and the barrels in which wine is often aged. Tannins are a valuable preservative in wine and create potential for a wine to age.

Whites and reds

White wines with pronounced oak, which usually pose a challenge with food pairing because they dominate, are ideal mates for lots of grilled foods. Here, an oaked wine’s powerful flavors and smoky notes can be just the thing. Chardonnay, for example, is a natural with richer grilled fish and grilled chicken. Oak-aged Fumé Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc that has been oaked, and sometimes blended Semillon) and Viognier are good bets, too.

Red wines are a natural with many grilled foods. The combination of luscious cherry-berry fruit, bright acidity, and tannin is a perfect complement to the grill’s robust flavors, especially grilled meats. Red wine is usually aged in small oak barrels, which add flavor, structure, and tannins of their own. My favorite grill wines include Zinfandel from California, Shiraz from Australia, and Rhône-style blends with Syrah. Richer Merlots also work well.

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