Two things define summer for me: lying in a hammock (although sitting in a deck chair also will do) and grilling. No matter that cooking indoors is probably cleaner, easier, and more predictable. To cook outdoors is to surrender yourself to summer. And whatever you grill, barbecue, or smoke will turn out better if you have a glass of wine while wielding the tongs. So sip whatever you like. But when it's time to serve your masterpiece, pair it with something that will highlight your effort. After some thought-and practice-here are a few suggestions.
Light Isn't Always Right
Come June, many people stock up on enough light white wine to last the entire summer. But whites aren't necessarily the best companions for grilled fare. Consider all the places in the world that have long traditions of cooking outdoors. From Spain to Australia, France to Argentina, red wines are more often served with summertime meals than whites. There are hundreds of terrific wine partners for grilled, barbecued, and smoked foods, and they come in all colors.
For simple grilled dishes (grilled vegetables or shrimp, for example), one of the most important qualities a wine can have is crispness. Crispness comes from acidity, and acidity in wine cuts through the flavors of grilled foods to set up a delicious counterpoint. Whites that have a good amount of natural acidity include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. For reds, choose Sangiovese (the grape that makes Chianti) or Pinot Noir.
Bold Is Beautiful
In the heat of summer, a light, delicate wine might seem right on the money. But the opposite is often true. Grilled foods are usually boldly accented-their marinades, flavorings, and sauces are anything but shy. In such company, a delicate wine would end up tasting like water. So choose bold, expressive, fruity wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Alsace Gew'rztraminers are whites that fit the bill. Reds include California Zinfandels, Australian Shirazes, and southern French reds like C'tes du Rh'ne.
Spice Is Nice
Certain wines naturally have spicy or peppery flavors. If the dish you're making also possesses these qualities, then a spicy wine will provide a complementary synergy. Among whites, try Gewï¿½rztraminers and Sauvignon Blancs; among reds, go for Syrahs (especially from France's Rh'ne Valley), some Zinfandels, some Merlots, and some Cabernets.
Terrific BBQ Mates (priced between $10-$25)
Twin Islands 2002 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand: Fresh, dramatic, and crisp. It's just waiting to be paired with grilled asparagus or seafood.
Huia 2001 Gew'rztraminer from Marlborough, New Zealand: Powerfully vivid with flavors of gingerbread, litchis, minerals, and peaches. Try it with a sassy version of barbecued chicken.
Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca Valley, Chile: Meadowy aromas, flavors of spearmint and green fig, and a crisp-yet-creamy texture. Let it shine with a simple platter of olive oil-drizzled grilled vegetables.
Stonehaven Limestone Coast 1999 Shiraz from Australia: Saturated fruit flavors, plus loads of cocoa, vanilla, and plush blackberry tastes. Ideal with barbecued or smoked lamb or beef.
Hedges "CMS" from Columbia Valley, Washington: An inviting blend of Cabernets, Merlot, and Syrah with blueberry and spicy cassis flavors. Most Cabernet-based wines are too pricey for humble backyard burgers. This, however, would be ideal.
Saintsbury Pinot Noir 2001 from Carneros, California: One of California's juiciest and fruitiest Pinot Noirs; flavors of spiced strawberry jam, plum jam, candy apple, and baked cherries. It could star opposite grilled duck or barbecued Cornish hens.
Karen MacNeil is author of The Wine Bible (Workman, 2001) and chair of the wine programs at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley. Wine prices are national retail estimates and may vary.