Food And Wine Choice Advice From An Expert Wine Taster
Food and wine were meant to go together. In my big Italian family, no gathering was complete without plenty of both. Winter feasts were easy for the food and wine lovers among us – a hearty red table wine is the perfect foil for most southern Italian dishes. A pitcher of table wine drawn from the cask in the basement was the typical accompaniment to our everyday meals.
Red, white or rose, Italian table wines are meant to be imbibed in the casual atmosphere of a family dinner. They are light enough to be enjoyed even by the casual food and wine enthusiast, and robust enough to complement the full-flavored richness of smoked and barbecued food. Which leads us to the subject of this little soliloquy – mixing and matching food and wine for the barbecue. My own tastes run to Italian jug wines, and if it was up to me, I’d tell you to just go out and buy a jug of Chianti and a jug of Lambrusco. It’s what I grew up with, and I happen to love the little sparkle that a good Lambrusco (yes, they do exist!) adds to food.
In the interests of presenting a fair and educated view, however, I decided to check with an expert. Austin Liquor has been voted Best Liquor Store in Worcester for the past 5 years, mostly on the strength of its weekly wine tasting. A Friday night tradition in Worcester since the late 1970s, each tasting offers food and wine based around one or two specific vintages. I was directed to Richard Beams, Austin Liquor’s resident wine expert, and directed my question to him: “What food and wine combination would you recommend for a summer barbecue?”
I did get my recommendations – but I also got a wonderful overview of Rich’s philosophy of choosing wines, especially for fun or everyday occasions.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for people to spend more than $12 for a bottle of wine for an everyday dinner,” he told me. “For a special occasion like an anniversary dinner, sure, you can spend $20 or more for a bottle. A barbecue is a fun occasion, though. For a barbecue you can get really good quality wine for under $12.”
That may come as a surprise to those of us who have been intimidated into believing that the only true quality wines come with corks and high price tags.
Said Rich to that: “I like wine to be fun. It should be fun. Too many people try to snob it up and break down the flavors so far that it’s not fun anymore. I advise people to find something they like and enjoy it. I like to steer people to the less expensive wines that are excellent quality.”
So what does Rich recommend to go with the food at a summer barbecue?
“I like to recommend a nice, light Riesling, “ he told me. “Something crisp and fresh.”
In fact, he told me, several of their recent wine tasting afternoons have featured barbecued food and wine that complements it. He recommended several wines that he feels are ‘fun wines’ with good value.
Flaio Primitivo (Salento, Italy) Primitivo is a grape varietal grown in the heel of Italy’s boot. It’s very similar to a good California Zinfandel – in Rich’s words it’s “almost an exact copy”. It retails for about $7 a bottle and is a great accompaniment for burgers and ribs.
Bonny Doon Big House Red (California) Bonny Doon has a lot of fun with their wines, according to Rich, and he does believe that wine should be fun. Big House Red is a blend of 7 or 8 grapes. According to Bonny Doon’s own web site, those varietals include syrah, petite sirah, Grenache, barbera and malbec. It retails for about $12 a bottle and its robust licorice and raspberry-accented bouquet stands up to the spiciest barbecued ribs.
Monte Antico (Tuscany, Italy) – “very similar to a Chianti Sangiovese,” said Rich. At $12 a bottle, it’s got great fruit, balances a barbecue, holds up well, and has a very Italian looking label.” To quote Monte Antico’s own press, this wine is “Dark ruby in color, its bouquet of leather, earth, herbs, black cherries, licorice and plums is confirmed on the medium to full-bodied palate – round, spicy, elegant, attractively fruity and extremely versatile with any fare from pasta or risotto, to meat, fowl and cheese.”
Rich’s final recommendation was another ‘fun’ wine, one that he says is a great ‘food wine’. The top in his book is:
Three Thieves 2002 Zinfandel was voted #8 as one of the Hottest Small Brands of 2005. The wine comes in a 1 liter jug with a screw top, and is marketed as a ‘fun thing’, says Rich, but the wine inside is a full bodied red zinfandel that goes great with burgers or eggplant parmagiana.
“The wine is excellent, and it’s about $11,” Rich added. He also added the following advice for would-be wine fanciers. “You don’t have to spend a lot to find excellent quality wines. If you find something that you like, make a note. You can go into a store and tell someone there that you liked ‘this brand’ and they’ll steer you to other similar wines for you to try.”
Final analysis? Good food and wine that’s fun are the cornerstone of a great summer barbecue. Skip the fancy labels, vintages and price tags and pick out a wine that you like. Who cares what the noses think as long as your nose is tickled pink?