In the beginning—or shortly thereafter—there was man, an open hearth, a deer haunch and a skinful of some insanely gratifying juice made from crushed grapes growing wild along the Tigris river.
Primordial party time for the Mesopotamian player.
The rapport between wine and wood-grilled meat is a cornerstone of gastronomic history; a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Our techniques have been refined, but not by much. Short of a manicured backyard, a Ducane 7200, a corkscrew and a ‘Kiss the Chef’ barbecue apron, the prehistoric great-something grandfather of today’s weekend grill jockey operated under the same overriding ideology: At the close of the day, there are few combinations more elemental and enjoyable than a smoke-soaked steak and a sip of soul-stimulating wine served outdoors amid a circle of like-minded barbarians.
Philistine philosophies aside, there’s science behind the sensuality. Two words: acids and tannins. Charred meat, including fish and fowl, can take on certain bitter overtones due to unregulated heat zones within the grill, and these can be meliorated with a newish, richly tannic wine. Tannins, of course, are those chewy chemicals released when the seeds and stems of grapes are crushed along with the fruit, or leeched from wooden aging barrels. They act as a preservative (‘tanning’ an animal hide utilizes tannins to prevent decomposition), and when young and raw, they can result in a mouthfeel that’s akin to gnawing on a clothes pin. Alone, aggressively tannic wines can hit your palate like a tactile tsunami. But an odd pas de deux arises when the bitterness of blackened meat meets the astringency of immature tannins, softening both to manageable levels.
Likewise, the fat which often remains behind on even a well-cooked cut of meat can be tamed by a wine’s pH, and the rarer you go, the more you are going to require a companion beverage that has a lightning-bolt of acidity and plenty of puckery tannins. Proteins and fats bind with tannins, and as a result, fruit notes inherent—but often muted—in a tannic wine, are enhanced. Presumably, a glass of lemonade mixed with sawdust would serve as well, but I’ll stick to a junior Bordeaux, a fledgling Nebiollo, or a full-throttle Zinfandel.
Which brings us to varietals. While it’s true that the easiest partnership with grilled red meat may be ripe ’n’ raw reds—which tend to pack in more tannins that whites—there’s enough exceptions to toss out generalities. Fleshy chardonnays where the oak is in overdrive are perfectly appropriate to serve alongside simple grilled meats, and serious sauvignon blancs—whose very root (sauvage) means ‘wild’, can wrestle with most multi-flavored barbecue slathers.
Anyway, pairing wine with wood-grilled meat is less about adhering to rules and more about shedding the skin and relaxing. Of course, the evolution of wine, from catch-as-catch-can plonk fermented from rogue yeasts to the refined flavors of our time, has largely been a story of laws and regulations. But isn’t it a huge breath of fresh air—whether from the outback, the backwoods or the backyard—to lay back, damn decorum, and do what today, as in 6000 BC, comes naturally?
A few textbook grill wines:
Fairview Goats do Roam, around $10: Like its model, Côtes-du-Rhône, this fruity, easy-drinking South African red is a blend of several grapes. It’s a terrific partner to all kinds of smoky meats.
Rosenblum Zinfandel, about $13: Zinfandel isAmerica’s best red wine, and the Rosenblum is a superb all-purpose, all-occasion specimen. The fruit is dense and dark with classic blackberry and raspberry flavors. Great with all things grilled. Matches up especially well with hot marinades or barbecue sauces.
Beringer “Founder’s Reserve” Pinot Noir, about $12: Light, chillable reds are hard to come by. This pinot noir is bright and fresh with good concentration and flavors. A little lighter, and it could be like the Vin Gris above. Grilled marinated portabello mushrooms with scallions are a great match.