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How to Pick a Wine to Match Any Kind of Southern Barbecue Style

06/27/2014 10:27 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014
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This article was written by Katie Chang and was originally published on AskMen.

While beer may be the first thing that comes to mind when pairing barbecue with drink, epicureans everywhere are taking notice of a slightly more sophisticated sipper.

It's wine, in fact, that's been growing in popularity, revealing a whole new side of smoked meats to even the most ardent 'cue fan. Chef Neal Corman of New York City's famed Virgil's Barbecue, who just released a cookbook in time for your summertime BBQ needs, has noticed the trend with his customers as well: "Wine is a great way to rediscover the elements of a familiar dish you may have forgotten were there."

And to help you navigate pairing wine with five of your favorite American barbecue styles, we've turned to some of the country's top guys in the wine biz. Here, Ryan Rech, a winemaker with Souverain Winery, Jerry Comfort, a wine educator at Treasury Wine Estates, and Phil Abram, sommelier of Napa's award-winning restaurant and bar The Thomas and Fagiani's Bar, share their expertise.

While it's agreed there are no hard and fast rules, you'll generally want to look for "wines that pair well with the smoky character in BBQ," says Rech. "They need to have firm acidity or be fairly structured. Barbecue isn't intended to be subtle, so often the best pairings contrast the flavors of the dish." Abram agrees, recommending "wines that'll be able to punch right back and not get lost in the shuffle of smoke, char and heavy-duty sauces." But most importantly, he believes, "Just don't lose the spirit of the whole experience. Have fun with your wine pairings!"

North Carolina BBQ

Description: The whole hog reigns supreme here, slow-cooked with heat and smoke from a fire of hardwood, typically oak or hickory. The meat isn't basted during the cooking process and is served (chopped or pulled) with a thin sauce of vinegar, sugar, and chili pepper.

Expert pairing tip: "Fleshy peach and apricot flavors, and bright acid finish of Rieslings are a great complement to vinegar-based sauces and make for a seamless transition from bite to sip," says Abram, who favors Rieslings from Ojai Vineyards. Rech agrees that a white wine with natural stone fruit characters are a good match, and his pick is Souverain Winemaker's Reserve Russian River Chardonnay, which has a creamy character that contrasts acidic sauces nicely.

Kansas City BBQ

Description: While no meat is off limits here, it's sweet, sticky pork ribs that have made KC a serious barbecue destination. Over hickory wood, they're cooked super-slow and super-low and finished with a thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce.

Expert pairing tip: "You need to be careful with smoke as it's such a powerful flavor, and even more so when you add sweetness," advises Comfort. His pick is Beringer's new Red Blend Quantum; its bold and spicy character holds its own against sweet sauce. Other big-structured reds, like Souverain's North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, come highly recommended by Rech.

Central Texas BBQ

Description: It's all about beef, namely untrimmed brisket. Smoked for long hours over pecan or oak wood, the humble cut transforms into something meltingly tender, with a prized pink smoke ring. Don't even ask for sauce. You won't need it.

Expert pairing tip: Traditionally, reds are paired with beef, and barbecue is no exception. Style-wise, Abram prefers a Zinfadel, as "many consider it to be America's native grape. What better to put on the table next to a big plate of Texas brisket?" Among his picks are Biale's "Black Chicken" Zinfandel and Storybook Mountain's Zinfandel. If you're in the mood to buck convention and shake up your palate, Comfort recommends "a rich white wine like the Chateau St. Jean's Robert Young Chardonnay or Beringer's Private Reserve Chardonnay."

Memphis BBQ

Description: Memphis-style pork ribs are slow-cooked, typically over white oak or hickory, dry and without sauce. So, aside from the meat, the dry rub is the most important ingredient, lending a more complex flavor to the finished ribs.

Expert pairing tip: Abram is personally a big fan of this style of barbecue and says to go for "slightly leaner reds -- but with delicious red fruit components, silky mouth feel and nuanced aromatics that jump out of the glass -- that won't be overwhelmed by a big sauce or the richness of beef." His picks include Radio-Coteau 'Savoy' Pinot Noir and Neyers Vineyards' Grenache Rossi Ranch.

Western Kentucky BBQ

Description: Mutton is simply the name of the meat sourced from a lamb more than a year old, and in Western Kentucky, it's cooked low and slow, mopped and finished with a "mutton dip" of Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, vinegar, and spices.

Expert pairing tip: "Bright blueberry and raspberry flavors provide a contrast to the smoky aromatics, and the acidity couples well with the richness of the mutton," says Rech of one of his picks, Souverain North Coast Merlot. Comfort agrees with Rech's philosophy and recommends Beringer Napa Valley Merlot because "it's powerful yet balanced, with generous fruit and quite a bit of acidity."

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