Whether you're firing up the grill right before dinner or waking up at dawn in order to get your slow-smoked barbecue going, many people tend to focus on beer pairings. While beer pairings can be deeply appealing and even surprising, wine has just as much potential to elevate the meal's pleasure potential.
In fact, the right wine pairing can completely recontextualize the grilled or barbecued foods that you've likely had a thousand times before. And don't shy away from popping the corks from the good stuff: Just because you'll be eating outdoors doesn't mean you can't drink decadently. Personally, I love an inexpensive Côtes du Rhône red with my hot dogs — the spice, the vivid fruit, the gulpability works well with a grilled frank — but a bottle of great rosé Champagne takes it to another place entirely.
Just remember to use good yet sturdy stemware (leave the Zaltos in the house and opt instead for something a bit more robust) and to keep an eye on your bottle temperatures. No matter how great the wine is, no red tastes particularly appealing when it's been heating up in the sun.
Proper barbecued brisket is a labor of love: Home enthusiasts have been known to wake up before sunrise and get their brisket in the smoker 12, 14, even 16 hours before dinner, just to make sure it's ready in time. The results are worth it, and deserve to be paired with something special. The 2018 Shafer Relentless ($90), a blend of 76% Syrah and 24% Petite Sirah, is ideal. It's meaty and powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with the smoked meat, yet with plenty of energy to enjoy on its own. Notes of hoisin sauce, smashed blackberries, star anise, and cloves also mean that it'll work alongside any sort of sauce you choose to drag each forkful of meat through, if you choose to go that route.
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A perfectly grilled steak is one of the all-time great pairing partners for a rich, structured red wine. The tannins and acidity of the wine cut through the fat and protein, which in turn soften up the perception of those tannins. It's a virtuous cycle if ever there was one. The 2019 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) from Puente Alto in Chile, considered to be one of the top red wines of the country, is a home run. It's plush and generous, with singed sage and forest floor anchoring mixed currants, cedar, and hints of sandalwood through the long finish. If you don't want to spend quite that much, The Paring Red Blend 2017 ($25) brings together Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, and offers up currants, orange oils, and suggestions of coffee and vanilla.
Sauce-slathered ribs are a staple at American cookouts. For many people, the jarred options at the supermarket are the go-to, and these often find their footing on the sweeter end of the spectrum. To work with that, a wine that also possesses a touch of sweetness — without actually being a sweet wine — is the route. The 2017 Tenuta Sant'Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella ($50) hits all the right notes, with its glorious flavors of Amarena cherries and red licorice joined by suggestions of Chinese five-spice powder. And at 15% alcohol, it won't be overwhelmed by any sense of smoky char on the food. For dry-rubbed ribs, it's important to keep in mind that every spice rub is different. Still, from sweeter versions to more savory, a well-crafted California Zinfandel will offer you a solid range of pairing possibilities. The 2019 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel ($45) is textbook. Its smashed blue fruits, candied violets, and sweet spices allow you to frame a platter of Kansas City-style bones with style and flavor to spare.
There are as many topping options for hamburgers as there are stars in the sky — or something like that. So of course the various meat-patty accouterments can work with a range of wines. But for a bottle of red that'll complement a breadth of burgers and stand up to any slabs of bacon you happen to toss on there, as well as the sweet-tangy zip of thousand island, the bright crunch of raw red onions, or the plush comfort of a blanket of melted American cheese, look no further than the Bouchaine Estate Selection Pinot Meunier 2019 ($68), which has a seam of peppercorn that'll partner brilliantly with the crust of the patty itself, and an appealing balance of cherry and red-berry fruit alongside blood oranges and lifted spice that will allow it to work with a wide range of potential toppings, or none at all.
Sure, a classic lager may be a go-to when it comes to washing down a dog. Coke does the trick, too. But for something really special, treat yourself and your frank to rosé Champagne. Its bright acidity cuts through the meatiness, and the bubbles prepare the palate for the next bite. And while it may seem a little bit hifalutin to pair your next grilled hot dog with a bottle of Dom Perignon Brut Rosé 2008 ($329), the results are astounding. This is a savory, mature expression in which cherries and brambly red berries dance with dried flowers, chanterelles, apple fritters, coffee beans, tobacco, incense, and pomegranate seeds. On its own, this is a stunner; alongside a great grilled hot dog, it's the recipe for a dinner al fresco you'll never forget. If a bottle of Dom isn't in the cards, then open the charming 2019 Brendel "Young Leon" Rosé Sparkling Wine ($38), an impossibly energetic, rhubarb-kissed bubbly ingeniously crafted from Grignolino.
Potato Salad and Macaroni Salad
Some quick cookout math: Starch + mayonnaise + vegetables + vinegar = the need for a bright, crisp wine to balance it all, with enough texture to stand up to the creaminess. In this case, look to Texas where, rumor has it, folks know a thing or two about grilling and barbecue. The 2019 Duchman Family Winery Trebbiano ($24) hits all the right notes: Vibrant and mouthwatering, pure and mineral, with lemon-lime and saline notes.
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Salmon and Pinot are a classic pairing, and when you're grilling the fish, it becomes even more important to find a bottle that possesses both enough savoriness to work in the context of the inherently high-heat cooking method yet that isn't so rich and extracted that it overwhelms each bite. That's why the 2019 Dutton Goldfield Dutton Ranch - Emerald Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir ($74), from the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, is such a solid pick. A beautifully lifted nose of red cherries and rose water precedes an energetic palate vibrating with red fruit — cherries, cranberries, pomegranate — as well as blackberries, all cut through with bright, concentrated mineral acidity and a touch of baking spice and forest floor before the flower-flecked, mineral finish. Enjoy it with the fish, and then finish it off on its own. Either way, you win.
Pairing with chicken is often just as much about the seasoning, marinade, sauce, or cooking method as it is the bird itself. After all, fried chicken calls for a different wine (Champagne!) than stir-fried (Beaujolais!). For some people, however, grilling chicken means marinating it first in some combination of olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and garlic before letting it hit the grill. And in that case, you cannot go wrong with the Château de Berne "Inspiration" Rosé 2021 ($21.99) from the Côtes de Provence. Its thrilling acidity, energy, and flavors of compressed watermelon, wild strawberries, oranges, and freshly picked cherries are gently seasoned with hints of scrubby Mediterranean herbs, making it a great go-to for grilled chicken dishes.
Grilled Portobello Mushrooms
Drizzled with olive oil and flecked with chopped rosemary, thyme, and garlic, portobellos on the grill have the potential to reach remarkable heights. Just make sure they char and don't steam (finding the right spot on the grill is imperative) and pair them with an energetic yet complex wine like the 2019 Luigi Oddero Barbera d'Alba ($27), whose notes of forest floor, tart black cherries, and plums are seamed through with crunchy minerality and suggestions of wild berries — perfect counterpoints to the smoky char of those mushrooms.