Grapes and smoke
How to pair your favorite Texas wines with barbecue
Standing in line at any of the many barbecue restaurants around Austin, you're bound to be dreaming about the luscious, bark-lined pile of brisket soon to be stacked on your plate. The only thing that could possibly make each bite of Texas' favorite smoked meat even better is a beverage that will complement its robust flavor.
There's no doubt a bottle of Shiner Bock will do the trick. A bottle of Shiner Bock has done the trick for decades. But if the Salt Lick's Salt Lick Cellars — which serves its own label of wine — is any indication, wine can be a pretty splendid pairing, too. You just need to keep an open mind.
Wine with barbecue "isn't an obvious pairing for most people," says Bill Fore, wine educator at the Hill Country's Bending Branch Winery. "They might think there would be a limited amount of finesse and sophistication involved in pairing wine with barbecue, which seems like more of a match for a full-bodied beer or, because we're in Texas, a Dr Pepper. But that doesn't mean it can't work."
Persuaded yet? With Texas Wine Month running through October, now's the time to make sure that bottle of wine you're popping open alongside a heaping plate of smoked meats and sides came from one of the state's 400 or so wineries. Here's the tricky part: knowing which wines would be best suited with each type of barbecued meat.
A home chef in addition to wine expert, Fore can talk endlessly about the basic chemistry that makes food pairings so entrancing. Or, on the flip side, why certain flavor combinations just don't mix. He can tell you, for instance, that barbecue served with a sweet sauce will make your palate perceive the accompanying wine as bitter, even if it's not on its own. (Adding sauce to Texas barbecue has historically been regarded as heresy, though it's more common now.)
Fore and Dave Reilly, the winemaker at Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood, both have guidelines that will help you pair Texas wines with your favorite barbecued meats. Generally, they say, full-flavored foods go with full-bodied wines, and pairings should have either similar or contrasting flavors for a complementary effect.
Let's start with brisket, "chapter one of every important barbecue story," Fore says. This thick hunk of beef in particular can be a more difficult meat to match with wine because it's so savory, thanks in no small part to the spice rub Central Texas pitmasters add before cooking it with wood and smoke. You want wine that can stand up to these bold flavors — full-bodied reds like tannat or tempranillo.
"Tempranillo can have a nice spicy character to it, so if the brisket was rubbed with a spice compound before it was smoked, the wine would play really well with that," Fore says.
Reilly also would argue that some rosé wines can complement brisket and other fatty smoked meats like pork ribs. Duchman's 2018 Dry Rosé is made with aglianico grapes, perfectly straddling the line between red and white wine. It's a crisp, refreshing option that is "not dainty and not overpowering, so it's easy to get a good pairing out of it," he says. Moreover, rosé's acidity helps to cut the fat of these meats.
Rosé is versatile enough — a chameleon, Fore says — that it can also taste divine with meats as wide-ranging as beef ribs, barbecue chicken and Thanksgiving turkey. (The aglianico rosé typically runs out around that holiday, Reilly says, because he recommends it as the bottle to take to the family dinner.)
White wines have their place on the table, too. They are generally lower-bodied than reds, which makes them suitable for similarly lighter fare coming out of the pit.
"A lighter-bodied wine is lower in alcohol, with gentler acidity, perhaps less fully ripened fruit flavors to it, and lower tannin," Fore says. "As such, the wine would go with grilled shrimp or chicken breasts that aren't heavily sauced and gently smoked. Lighter-bodied wines go with lighter-bodied foods and vice versa. (Following this rule of thumb) takes the mystery out of" how to pair.
There's one last flavor element that shouldn't be overlooked. Sweet wines often have a stigma attached to them, but if done well — that is, with a healthy amount of crisp acidity to keep the wine from getting flabby — they're ideal for spicy foods such as sausage, Reilly says. The sweetness downplays the spiciness.
Below, we've included specific pairings of Texas wine with common barbecued meats.
With barbecue chicken: Bending Branch Winery's 2016 Comfortage, made with 100 percent roussanne grapes and aged in new American oak barrels, has a more intense flavor than many other white wines and can pair beautifully with chicken that has been "smoked low and slow," Fore says.
With jalapeño cheddar sausage: C.L. Butaud's "Pa Pa Frenchy" White Wine, aged in Garrison Brothers bourbon barrels, also is unexpected. With the pairing, "you get the ripe citrus and slight saltiness that is typical of albarino (grapes), with the smoky oak and viscous texture of the bourbon layered in. That combination pairs so well by cutting through the rich, fatty content of the sausage while matching the smoke and bold spices," C.L. Butaud winemaker Randy Hester says.
Another direction to go with spicy sausage, as Reilly notes, is with a sweet or off-dry wine like Duchman Family Winery's Canto Felice White Blend, featuring trebbiano and pinot grigio grapes.
With pork ribs: For a chewy, fat-filled meat like pork, having a crisp rosé with deep, ripe fruit flavors is the way to go. To that end, turn to the 2017 Brennan Vineyards Mourvédre Dry Rosé, which bursts with notes of juicy strawberry and mild melon.
With smoked turkey breast: Remember how versatile rosé can be? It's a match for this Thanksgiving treat, too. Hester has noticed "matching the deep flavors of a Texas-style smoked turkey calls for more complexity than your typical poolside sipper," he says. "I drink rosé year-round so I make (the C.L. Butaud rosé) with bolder foods in mind. The fresh flavors of strawberry, cranberry and pomegranate play the lead in this wine, but it is the underlying savory character that sets it apart."
With beef ribs: Meatier and more massive than their pork counterpart, these ribs need a fully fruity wine that brings out all that smoked, savory character. Look no further than William Chris Vineyards' 2017 Mourvédre Timmons. The red wine spent less time in oak than others in the William Chris roster, adding spice and complexity to an otherwise fresh profile.
With brisket: The tempranillo grape has started to become Texas' version of California cabernet sauvignon. A big, bold wine like Pedernales Cellars' Texas Tempranillo 2016 — full of cherry, leather and blackberry notes — is just what a big, bold meat like brisket needs for an exemplary pairing. Plus, this staple of Texas barbecue has a high fat content that will help to balance the high amount of tannins in the tempranillo.