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Perfect Pair: BBQ and Zinfandel

Why these American classics go hand-in-hand

Few foods are as all-American as BBQ. Although there are a multitude of regional styles—from vinegar-kissed North Carolina style to spice-rubbed Kansas City style—all BBQ shares a smoky flavor profile and the technique of slow-cooking meat at a low temperature. 

And nothing pairs with BBQ better than another American classic, a bottle of red Zinfandel. Both are true American treasures: “Barbecue is really the only true American food that didn't come from anywhere else, and there are people who believe that Zinfandel is the only indigenous wine grape to the U.S.,” says chef, barbecue expert and Steak & Cake author Elizabeth Karmel. “When you think about terroir, barbecue and Zinfandel go hand-in-hand.” 

Where flavor is concerned, Zinfandel is a robust wine that can stand up to the big, bold flavors of barbecue—yet it’s easy-drinking and versatile enough to pair with a variety of meats. And since barbecue is really about the smoke, it’s best to find a wine that can stand up to those big, bold flavors. Zinfandel fits that bill.  “Zinfandel has enough body to play really well with but not overpower the smokiness of BBQ,” says Eagle Yu, whose L.A.-based Aged Butchery puts on barbecue events around the city. “The wine actually plays really well with those smoky notes.” 

If you’re planning to fire up your grill or smoker this summer, here are some helpful Zinfandel-pairing tips to make your next barbecue feast even more memorable: 

  1. Don’t get too hung up on barbecue “style.” Knowing the difference between all the regional styles is enough to make a BBQ novice’s head spin. “Really what differentiates the styles is whether there’s a sauce or not—all of the meats are smoked on wood,” Karmel explains.  
    To simplify your wine selection, focus on the meat and the particular dish you’re making. If you’re going with lighter meats like barbecued chicken, select a leaner, more structured Zin like Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Gnarly Vines Zinfandel.  Making  a peppery rub for a slow-smoked pork roast? Try a wine with peppercorn notes of its own, like the lush Orin Swift 8 Years in the Desert.  

  2. Fat is your friend. According to Yu, the fattier styles of barbecue, like beef brisket and pulled pork, are Zin’s best partners. “You get all the flavor from the fattiness, the smokiness and the bold fruit of the wine,” Yu says. Go with fuller-bodied Zinfandels like structured, fruit-forward version from Bear Flag, or the juicy, beautifully textured Mount Peak Rattlesnake for these richer, more savory dishes. 

“You get all the flavor from the fattiness, the smokiness and the bold fruit of the wine.” – Eagle Yu, Aged Butchery

  1. Doctor your sauce. “The reason North Carolina pulled pork is so delicious is because the acid from the vinegar cuts through the richness of the meat,” Karmel explains. And that same acidity will help bring out the flavors in your glass of Zinfandel. Not making your sauce from scratch? That’s okay! Karmel recommends adding a little bit of apple cider vinegar to your store-bought sauce to complement the fruit in the wine. 

  2. Make your sides wine-friendly, too! Just as you can punch up your barbecue sauce, you can easily tweak homemade or store-bought side dishes to complement your favorite Zin. “Make sure your sides have a balance of salt, fat, acid and heat to pair with the wine,” Karmel says. “If you buy a traditional, mayo-based potato salad, add a little acid. Throw in a splash of vinegar or some crunchy sea salt.” Karmel also recommends adding fresh herbs to store-bought sides to give them some brightness. 

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