For much of the world, it’s summer, and in the United States in particular, that means it’s time for BBQ food and gatherings with family and friends–but did you know that you can enjoy wine with your cookouts?
Wine may not sound like your first go-to when it comes to finding the best way to enjoy BBQ food, but you may be surprised that others swear by it. Take Fort Worth, Texas, well known for for its culture of smoked meats ad signature ribs, and of course, summer BBQ events.
One of the biggest events in July doesn’t take place outside but at a beloved cafe located in a modern art museum.
A guest chef serves up a multi-course dinner that includes delightful treats like sweet basil salsa, mascarpone ice cream, and even pastries. But the highlight is the entree courses which really embody Texas food culture. Smoked brisket is served with a plum-bourbon sauce and alongside some of the best emerging Texas wines.
While there is a fair share of brewing tours featuring beer with BBQ food as well, there’s no doubt that there’s a second culture for those who enjoy wine or want to add a touch of less expected sophistication and fruity flavors to their meals.
But even if wine with BBQ food does sound appealing, what kind of food is best? And what even is considered BBQ food?
We’ll discuss both of these questions and show you that, while there is some nuance when it comes to pairing wine with BBQ food, it need not be enormously difficult.
What is BBQ food?
For many, this question may seem to have an obvious answer, when in fact many misuse the term. Technically, BBQ is in reference to barbecue, which is a cooking method.
However, BBQ is also used, of course, to describe a gathering and the cookout itself. Let’s start, however, with the cooking method, because that’s what will most concern us. Barbecuing a food, however, has some disputes in of itself, with some insisting it’s limited to certain meats, and others claiming that it can only be done on certain grills or even over open fires.
The truth is that people define what BBQ means in different ways.
There are many different types of ways of barbecuing, but one thing is consistent: the incorporation of smoke. No matter the method or culture, BBQ food can be agreed upon to be food, normally meats and some other items, that has been smoked in some way.
Different cultures have different methods and traditions around the BBQ. BBQ is understood to include a wide swatch of specific techniques, including but not limited to: grilling, Korean Barbeque, Barbacoa (Mexican, Carribean), Mongolian barbecue, closed pit BBQ, Korean barbecue, Carolina and Kentucky BBQ.
Why is BBQ spelled in different ways? Just a quick aside–how you spell BBQ depends on where you’re from. The term originally comes from barbacoa, a term still used, for instance, in Mexican and Carribean and Latin American cultures.
In the United States, it’s popular to shorten the term to BBQ; in Australia, it’s often shortened to Barbie, and even when spelled out to ‘barbecue’ there are some regional differences in how it’s spelled.
While it’s not entirely clear how the spelling changed throughout cultures and over time, most chefs outside of Latin American and some Asian cultures refer to it as barbecue; in the United States, more casual establishments may simply say BBQ.
What’s the difference between smoking, barbecuing and grilling?
While barbecuing a food does involve smoke, if we want to get pickier, there are some differences between smoking, grilling and barbecuing food.
- Grilling uses high, dry heat for short periods of time. American grilling involves cooking over charcoal or gas in order to achieve a caramelized exterior and succulent interior. Grilling adds a smoky hue but is actually favored for more tender meat such as chicken and pork chops. It is also used for ribs, beef loin, and skirt steak.
- Smoking can be hot or cold and requires a smoker. It uses very low heat. Wood chips are involved for a signature flavor and it’s a very long process. Nearly anything can be cold smoked, from chicken to sausages to salmon.
- Barbecuing uses low heat for a few hours. It’s used for making meat with tough fibers tender over time. This method of outdoor slow cook renders meat juicy, tender, and smoky hues are dispersed throughout.
When it comes to BBQ food, we’re mostly discussing slow cook meat, with the use of smoke. However, since the meaning of BBQ is often misused, we will also include some tips for common foods served at American BBQs as well, such as grilled vegetables, hotdogs, brats, and hamburgers.
What are the different sauces used for BBQ?
One thing that is going to make a large impact on the best wine to pair your food with are the sauces added to them. When it comes to BBQ glazes and sauces, you can divide them by base.
- Vinegar based sauces include Eastern North Carolinian (cider vinegar with spices); Texas-Style Mop (vinegar, beef stock, Worcestershire and spices);
- Tomato-based sauces such as Memphis (with vinegar, mustard, spices); Kentucky (more vinegary, but with ketchup); Kansas City (thicker, but similar to Memphis), Central Texas (thinner, with meat drippings)
- Mustard based sauces which include Carolina sauce and other Southern sauces (typically with honey, a vinegar, ketchup, and spices.
Sauces can be divided into sweet and spicy. Nearly all BBQ sauces in the United States pack in spices and some heat, but some are quite hot and many are more sweet. BBQ from Cincinnati, for instance, is known to be very quite sweet.
What kinds of BBQ are we focusing on for this article? Since BBQ is a term used by Americans, we’re going to stick with American style BBQ and its accompanying sauces. We’ll also briefly touch on common foods served at American BBQ’s.
Finally, we’ll pay attention to sauces and glazes served on or over meats. If you are interested in other types of barbecue, be sure to check out our articles on pairing with Mexican food and other cuisines.
What are the main BBQ foods I can pair wine with?
When it comes to pairing wine with American BBQ and related food, there definitely are better options than others. Your very best options are foods that have actually been barbecued. Tender red meat pairs quite well with a variety of wines, highlighting the naturally sweet notes in slow-cooked meat.
Specific dishes, that exude smokily, and often sweet flavors include:
- Pulled pork
- Smoked brisket
While not technically BBQ, other foods you can pair wine with that are served at a BBQ include:
- Grilled steak
- Grilled Hamburgers (veggie burgers)
Of course, there are a wide variety of other foods you might serve, but these options will make the most sense for pairing with wine. Try not to worry too much about side dishes, such as potato salads, crisp green salads, and pasta salads, as you’ll want to pair your wine with your main entree.
Finally, we will add some notes in terms of how to pair with certain sauces and glazes.
What characteristics should I look for to pair wine with BBQ food?
BBQ food, true BBQ food, is smoky with spices and sweetness. The smoke, of course, comes from the method of cooking. Sweet notes come not only from glazes and sauces but also the meats themselves.
The best wine complements the food, bringing out the best flavors and developing it to be a richer, more complex experience.
There are exceptions, of course: white meat that is served at a BBQ but is really grilled, such as grilled chicken, does not follow these rules. We’ll make note of that when
- Do I want red or white wine? When it comes to BBQ food, even for something not really barbecued (such as grilled meat), you are almost always going to want to reach for red wines over white wines. Red wines present more fruity flavors, which play well with succulent, tender meats. Red wines also tend to contain more tannins (more on that in a minute) and are less likely to become overwhelmed with smoky flavors.
- Why do tannins matter? Tannins refer to naturally occurring compounds that create a drying sensation. The higher the level of tannins, the more astringent the wine is considered. Tannins however also provide texture to the wine. Wines high in tannins include Bordeaux red blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, among some wines from Tuscany; Pinot Noir, on the other hand, has a lower level of tannins for red wine. Tannins also cut through the fat in the meat. The heavier the preparation, the more tannins you’ll want. High tannin wines are preferred for most BBQ meat, especially with richer sauces.
- What about the level of acidity? For the most part, a moderate level of acidity is your best option for BBQ and BBQ foods. Acidity provides that puckering sensation as you drink. Low acid wines will get lost and not pair well with the heavier sauces, meat, and smokiness. Too high of acid wines can be jarring and compete too much with the sweeter succulent notes and BBQ sauces. A medium acidity is just about right for most BBQ.
- What about the body? Do you want a light or heavy feel to your wine? While many associate lighter body wines with summer foods, for BBQ food your best off with a medium-full to full body wine. A full body wine will provide a way to round out your entree but works well with smokier flavors and heavier sauces. Red, slow-cooked meat in general benefits with wine with a fuller body.
- Should my wine be aged? Aging wine adds warmth and depth. If the wine has been barrel-aged, the best versions develop undertones of vanilla and toasted oak. These both actually pair very well, especially with meat with tomato-based sauces, but most BBQ food overall. The rich toasted oak adds warmth and balance to the smokiness of both barbecued and grilled types of meat.
- What flavor notes should I look for to find the best wine pairings with BBQ food? The best wine pairings with BBQ food depends on the specific food, but general flavor notes you want to look for are those that directly complement the flavors developed.
- Smoky notes, including pepper, tobacco, and smoke
- Dark fruit notes, such as blackberries, boysenberries, black cherry, and black currant
- Richer notes, like cocoa or chocolate and toasted vanilla
- Spices, including clove, allspice, and other baking spices
- Can you suggest specific pairings with certain foods? Let’s focus first on traditionally BBQ’d foods.
- Pulled Pork is flavorful, succulent, and often full of spices. While some may suggest something more light, like a Rose, you’re actually better off with a good Syrah. The red wine is not as heavy as some others, but still bold and flavorful, marrying the sweet more tender notes with the spicy ones and adding a smoky finish.
- Smoked Brisket is at once fatty and tender, making it challenging in some ways to pair wine with. However, robust wine with prominent fruit flavors is the way to go. You can go a bit lighter on the body if you prefer a more refreshing taste–brisket is an exception where you could do a lighter body like Pinot Noir, but our recommendation is to look at something like Tempranillo, a Spanish wine that is normally aged, but features medium ripe fruit flavors like cherry and tomato, with a moderate level of acidity, a few cloves, and a moderate level of tannins.
- Ribs are among the more versatile of BBQ foods when it comes to finding the best wine pairings. While ribs can be quite tender, what wine you pair them with depends on what kind of BBQ sauce is being used.
- For sweet sauces, go with a more fruity wine with brighter notes. Petit Syrah offers subtle sweetness and pairs well with the sweeter notes common on tomato-based BBQ sauces.
- For spicier renditions, try something bold and fruit-forward, such as Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. Malbec will echo smoky notes more, while Cabernet Sauvignon will make everything taste richer.
- Hamburgers are not as well paired with wine, but is possible, especially if you make a non-traditional burger like a lamb burger. For full information about lamb, including grilled lamb, and appropriate wine pairings, check out our wine with lamb guide.
- Grilled light meat, like chicken, is a bit different. Technically this is grilled, not barbequed, but with this, you need to consider the tenderness of the chicken and the smoky effect from grilling. Here is where you can break the red wine rule. Go for a Riesling, which is bright and sharp enough with acidity–things you do not want with true BBQ food.
Can you summarize the basic rules for pairing wine with BBQ food?
When it comes to pairing wine with BBQ food, it’s only as complicated as you make it. If you extend that definition to food served at a barbecue, or if you look at international cuisines, there’s a great degree of variation.
That said, the good news is that BBQ food in a classic American sense is easier to pair wine with.
- Red wines with medium acidity, medium to full body, dark fruity flavors, and a bit of spice and smoke, with structured tannins, are the best option.
- Meat with higher fat content do well with especially high tannins.
- For sweeter glazes and meats, a smokier wine like Syrah or Petite Syrah is a good option.
- Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent accompaniment to make any meal richer; Malbec is also a nice choice if you want a smokier finish.
- If you really do want to have something other than red wine, it is possible. The best recommendation is a very dry sparkling wine, which can work with barbequed meat; just make sure to go a bit lighter on the sauce.
Can you recommend any specific wine pairings with BBQ food?
If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at this list. These wines offer some of the best possible pairings for BBQ food:
- For pulled pork, try a tangy, fruity Syrah like Wind Gap, Syrah, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast, 2012. Pulled pork is actually complex when it comes to flavors–it’s tender, slightly sweet meat, with plenty of spicy elements. A bit of smokiness with bright fruit is the way to go. This wine features black olive, plum, and pepper.
- For smoked brisket, try a robust Tempranillo like Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2011. This Tempranillo is nice and complex, with a brilliant red hue braided with dark berry and toasted notes. The full body is complemented with structured tannins and a long finish.
- For sweet ribs, try a Petite Syrah like The Terraces Petite Sirah 2015. This Napa Valley wine features both bright and darker notes, such as cherries, blueberries, and a touch of smoke with tobacco. Elegant and sophisticated, this wine has enough complexity, with undernotes of cocoa and spices that come across as both rich and sweet.
- For spicy ribs, try a textured and fruity but bold Cabernet Sauvignon like Andrew Will Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. This wine is textured with noticeable, but not overpowering tannins. Blackberry and dark berry notes taste both fresh and rich, with a bit of licorice for a full, silky finish.