The grill's day in the sun: Wines for spicy July Fourth fare

grilling foodThey say variety is the spice of life, but really it’s cayenne pepper. Sprinkle enough of this pungent, piquant seasoning on anything and watch mouths water and tears run. But it’s worth it — adding spicy sauce or pepper to a half-pound burger imparts excitement to an otherwise dreary clump of meat. And July 4th is definitely the unofficial raw-meat-on-the-grill-day. But its unofficial side dish isn’t a ghastly, mayo-laden potato salad; it’s alcohol. The after-effects of spice need something that will quell the fire when your mouth feels like blacktop on a summer Florida day. But should you choose red, white or brew to ease your pain?

Back when I only knew about Bud, Miller and Milwaukee’s “Beast,” food and beer pairing wasn’t my goal. As I aged (read: could afford), I discovered the beautiful world of craft beers, whose sharp, clean yet sweeter wheat brews toned down my atomic hot wings. But no matter how refreshing a beer tastes going down, an entire day of it still leaves me feeling like someone blew up a balloon in my stomach.

So I stick with perhaps the original “tastes great, less filling” beverage, wine.

Essentially, for anything to meld with strong spices, a spoonful of sugar helps the pepper go down. This goes for wine and beer. Wine has the natural fruit acids and tannins that help harmonize and tame strong seasonings, especially on protein-laden grill goodies. Lighter whites, such as riesling and pinot gris/grigio, refresh the palate and pair nicely with seafood items like fiery fish or shrimp. Dry rosés, far from the syrupy, inane rep they’re battling, help quench the thirst built up under a sweltering sun, but also drink nicely with peppery items.

And then there’s the king of bland: the hot dog. If I had my druthers, every American would drink rosé with their nitrate-laden “beef’ franks, if only to drown the flavor.

With burly barbecued vittles, think bold and beautiful reds. Also think that the wine should match the sauce on the meat, rather than the meat itself, since the sauce becomes the dominant taste component. The zesty smoky-sweet stuff we slather on beef or chicken is far from wimpy, so your wine shouldn’t be, either. Think something that sings with berries, with plenty of pepper and spice (not tannic and oaky), to stand up to all that brawn. Zinfandel and syrah/shiraz are considered classic BBQ wines because they have lots of fruit and peppery spice, without too much oak and tannin to cloud flavor. But if you’re feeling exotic, pop open a smoky Spanish Rioja or California tempranillo (the grape in Rioja). For those wanting to stay in their comfort zone, medium to full-bodied merlots are also good matches for BBQ fare — especially mild brats and delicious, full-flavored sausages.

A quick tip for the barbecue set-up: Since wine glasses just feel wrong when hanging at a barbecue, it’s fine to use plastic cups or these new, reusable hard plastic ones, found on Amazon. But avoid Styrofoam — all you’ll taste is wine-scented Styrofoam.

Recommended Wines

Pillar Box White 2008
Indaba 2008 Chenin Blanc South Africa
Cupcake 2009 Riesling Columbia Valley
Clayhouse 2007 Adobe Red

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