Dining Out - Wines and Spirits


a plate of barbecue with a glass of red wineStanding Up to 'Cue: Wines with Staying Power

By Laurie Daniel

In Kansas City, where I grew up, the beverage of choice with barbecue was beer. Although I still think the two are a great match, sometimes I want to drink wine with my ribs or brisket.

First, let me clarify what I mean when I say "barbecue." Just grilling a food does not make it 'cue. True barbecue involves long, slow cooking over wood smoke. Some purists eschew barbecue sauce, but a smoky, tangy, slightly sweet sauce is an important element of Kansas City barbecue.

Finding the right wine for your 'cue can be challenging. You need something that will stand up to the rich smokiness of the meat. Sauce is another roadblock, especially if it's fairly sweet or spicy.

I took my dilemma to an expert. Stephen Singer buys the wine for the Lalime's group of restaurants, which includes T-Rex Barbeque in Berkeley. Unlike more downhome barbecue joints, where wine is an afterthought (if it's even offered), T-Rex is a stylish spot with a lot more than 'cue on the menu. Still, when you step inside and smell the air, you know you've found barbecue.

The wine list at T-Rex is wide-ranging and eclectic. It's divided according to the style of the wines, and there are reds identified as "richer and more smoke-friendly."

Singer acknowledges that "a lot of people think that beer is the preferred drink" with barbecue or spicy food--and T-Rex has a great selection of microbrews and imports-- but it's not his choice. Beer "fills you up," he says, while wine, with its higher alcohol and acidity, acts as a digestive and cleanses the palate by cutting through the food's fat. Singer doesn't adhere to any hard and fast rules on pairing wines with food of any type. "I don't think there are any capital crimes committed when you pair wines that aren't conventional," he says, but then adds, "I look for the fruit definition being the allimportant issue."

The principles for pairing wine with barbecue also apply to grilled foods. "Smoked food is just a more extreme version of grilled food," Singer says.

It was time to start our research. Along with a sampling of T-Rex's baby-back pork ribs, brisket and pulled pork, Singer poured five wines, most of them from the "smokefriendly" section of the list. Just for fun, we started with a white: a Vermentino from Sardinia. The wine was rich and aromatic, with lovely fruit and a hint of smoke. It went surprisingly well with the 'cue. "It has enough fruit and overall body that it wouldn't get blown off your palate," Singer observed.

Next up was a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: the 2004 Baker Lane, Singer's own label. It's a delicious wine, full of bright cherry and raspberry flavors, enveloped by a supple texture. Its balance and acidity pair well with many foods, but the barbecue flattened it out. (I think the sauce--T-Rex's tastes like a slightly sweet marinara--may have been the culprit.)

More successful were a couple of wines in the Rhone family. A Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley--a cuvee produced for the restaurant by Torbreck--had ample, bright fruit, accented by notes of spice and white pepper. It stood up fine to the smoky meats. A peppery Gigondas from Domaine les Pallieres (a blend from the southern Rhone) was actually improved by the pulled pork, which was bathed in a sauce tasting of mild vinegar and apples.

Perhaps the best match was Vega de Toro "Termes," a wine from a hot region in northwestern Spain made from Tempranillo. The wine was bright and fruity, with a hint of white pepper and good structure. All the elements combined for a wine that stayed lively on the palate and more than stood up to the 'cue. Singer concurred: "It hangs in there."

My conclusions? The best matches involved wines with plenty of fruit, as Singer says, and some spicy or savory notes. Most of the T-Rex barbecue sauces (with the exception of the sauce with the pulled pork) aren't terribly assertive or extreme, which makes them more wine-friendly. Sweet barbecue sauces, in particular, can be problematic. But Singer has a remedy for that, too: "Add some acid," he advises, such as a squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar, to the food.

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