I first encountered the growing trend of pairing barbecue with wine in 2015 on a trip to Napa Valley in California. Though my wife loves barbecue, she often suggests vacation destinations that are ostensibly barbecue-free – a way to take a break from our usual diet that leans heavily toward smoked meats.
Of course, I couldn’t resist Googling “barbecue Napa Valley” and found a restaurant called The Bounty Hunter that specializes in barbecue and wine pairings. We went for lunch, and I ended up writing a column titled “Barbecue and wine: The final frontier.” I filed it away and went back to writing about barbecue, beer and Big Red.
Fast-forward to 2018. The trend of pairing barbecue with wine is stronger than ever. Two newer barbecue restaurants in the Houston area, Pinkerton’s Barbecue and Pappas Delta Blues Smokehouse, have developed wine, beer and cocktail menus specifically meant to be paired with their smoked meats.
I expect this trend to continue. With this in mind, here are a few tips for pairing barbecue with wine.
First, a caveat. I don’t expect or want all barbecue joints to start serving wine. Indeed, on the vast majority of visits to barbecue restaurants, I just want my ice-cold bottle of Shiner Bock or Lone Star. But on the occasion I’m eating barbecue for dinner, I appreciate that some restaurants offer the option for a creative wine pairing.
Pairing food with wine is a subjective endeavor. In general, there are two schools of thought: Wine should complement (taste similar) to the food, or it should act as a counterpoint to the taste of the food.
We’ve all heard the rule “white wine with fish, red wine with meat.” Very generally, this just means the lighter quality of the white wine complements the delicate flavor of the fish while the robust red wine goes better with the intense flavor of the meat.
Characteristics of wine that should be considered when pairing with food are its acidity (crispness), tannins (bitterness), body (light or full) and whether it is sweet or dry (dry = less sweet).
When it comes to barbecue pairings, I lean toward the complementary school of thought. I like a full-bodied, acidic, tannic red wine such as cabernet sauvignon to go with that peppery, fatty, smoky beef rib. Others prefer a sweeter, less tannic but still acidic wine such as zinfandel to act more as a counterpoint to the intensity of the barbecue.
Recently, a popular barbecue and wine pairing comes from a surprising source: Italy. Lambrusco is from the Emilia-Romagna region and is slightly sparking and generally sweet. Unfortunately, it has a tarnished reputation in the U.S., stemming from a flood of low-quality, overly sweet Lambrusco that became popular here in the 1970s and ’80s.
But real Lambrusco is a serious wine, and producers from Italy are reintroducing it to U.S. consumers. One way they are doing this is to recommend pairing it with barbecue.
In Houston, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce has made the pairing a theme of its upcoming Taste of Italy (iacctexas.com) trade show (I’ll be speaking on a panel about the pairing).
And at Pappas Delta Blues, Lambrusco paired with barbecue is a centerpiece of the extensive wine list.
“Lambrusco is a sparkling wine served cold, giving it a refreshing contrast to warm and spicy barbecue,” says Robert Smith, executive wine director at Pappas Bros. Steakhouses. “The low alcohol content keeps the spice from being over-amplified. Lambrusco’s low tannins and fresh acidity help counter the fatty richness of the food and cleanse the palate for another flavorful bite, making it a natural wine-and-barbecue pairing.”
Considering how Texas barbecue has become an international phenomenon, pairing our traditional smoked meats with an up-and-coming style of Italian wine isn’t as crazy as it sounds.