News and views | Which wine to pair with Texas BBQ

News and views

Which wine to pair with Texas BBQ

US-based wine writer and educator David Furer reports on an epic tasting in the homeland of American barbeque, Austin, Texas pairing a selection of international and home-grown reds with different meats.

Pairing wines with various styles of American barbeque is a chancey proposition. Traditional American tastes tend toward lager beers, iced tea, sodas (what Brits refer to as 'fizzy drinks') and water.

Why? The development of BBQ as an outdoor eating method long preceded the recent exposure of wine to the broader US palate. Add to this BBQ’s tendency to absorb hours of exposure to smoke from wood from which its cooking heat is derived, sweet and/or sour sauces used for marinating, braising and dressing the meats, and a range of flavorsome spices sometimes imbued with fierce chiles - and you have no easy task in hand.

That said Texas's standard, readily applied by our host Franklin Barbecue in my home of Austin, is merely to rub black pepper and salt into the raw meat before allowing it to slowly cook in heat and smoke derived from oak and/or mesquite wood. The results are so good that the addition of sauces, although housemade and very tasty, is akin to gilding the lily.

The wines I chose were exclusively still, dry reds from the portfolio of Pioneer Wine Company, a distributor with extensive choices providing plenty of opportunities for successful and not so successful pairings.

However I thought that these diverse, high-quality wines from respected growers would show better with the food than they did - a sentiment shared by our group of tasters. With the array of intense flavors both in the meats and wines it was one of the most difficult pairings any of us ever experienced.

Joining myself and Stacy Franklin, co-owner of Franklin Barbecue and her husband Aaron, were Nat Davis, formerly a New York CIty-based sommelier now working for Pioneer, Ken Seeber, former chef and now salesman for Texas' Twin Liquors retail chain and Greg Randle, a wine consultant to restaurants and private collectors.

"The fat left in the meats we serve are minimal, we try to render everything so you're left with the essence of fat, not the actual pieces of fat - aside from the brisket where one end is always fatty" said Stacy. "No one wants a piece of pork which has a noticeable piece of fat in it."

She claims Texas BBQ originated from German-owned markets which served BBQ pieces from unsold lesser cuts such as brisket. The ribs take six hours to do well whereas brisket takes her staff 18. "It's more time-consuming so it's more special."

For Nat the unique thing about Texas BBQ is the emphasis on brisket comparable to that of New York City's delis’ emphasis on corned beef and pastrami. "It's such a challenge that when you achieve its pinnacle it's all the more incredible" he said, pointing out that great ribs can, by comparison, be found in many places, a comment which garnered nods from Ken.

Greg's take on the suitability of wines with BBQ is "over-the-top New World with some Rhone wines" citing the Seghesio Barolo 07 as possessing some of that 'in-your-face’ style.

"To me the Musar is a typical acetone-brett cat, sometimes making me think except for its whites 'how can someone drink this garbage?'

“Texas BBQ is about sweet tea, Dr. Pepper and Big Red sodas. As an adult, a porter or double bock beer. I don't typically think of wine going with BBQ except for Zinfandel and Aussie Shiraz."

Nat would have liked a Beaujolais to sip along with the fattier meats "the way you choose Brachetto d'Acqui in Italy to go with cold, smoked meats." He posited that if one grows up with a particular style of BBQ (styles in the US range from Hawaiian to the Carolinas) it may influence one's preferences later in life.

The meats were the full line from Franklin - boneless turkey breast, pulled pork (meat off the bone and pulled apart or shredded), pork ribs, beef brisket, and sausage, a coarse ground beef, heart and pork meat combination, the heart giving it a "little more iron and gamey taste", according to Stacy. Garlic and black pepper is added before the meat is stuffed into the natural casing.

The wines we tried are listed alphabetically with comments an amalgamation of those supplied by the group unless specified otherwise:

Aalto Aalto Ribera del Duero 2008

Excellent wine, swamps the turkey and zips up a little better with the pulled pork. Good with the rib which laid well into the layers of flavor. So streamlined, it went seamlessly well with the brisket. "It’s the chameleon wine of the day as it fits almost any tasting with any meats," said Ken. The standout for Ken and Stacy, a close second for Nat, Greg, and I though it topped all for its flexibilty.

Alpha Xinomavro, Hedgehog Vineyard, Amyndeon Greece 2008

Good, smoky and earthy wine which does alright with the turkey, not so much with the pulled pork. The tart cherry flavor contrasted and cleaned up the sausage.

A. A. Badenhorst (Shiraz, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Grenache) Southern Cape 2008

Good wine, balanced. Fun with the pulled pork, a pleasant chug with the garlicky sausage.

Barboursville Octagon (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon), Virginia 2006

Light-medium body, nearly austere, the olive character comes alive with the turkey. Fends well with most, best with the rib.

Caduceus Nagual de la NAGA (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangio, Tempranillo) Arizona 2010

Good upfront fruit character with a tannic finish. Missed with the turkey, much better with the pulled pork and ribs, fair with the brisket and sausage.

Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2008

Compact and intense wine which is softened from its primarily raspberry character by the peppery turkey. Its iron depth comes across even more with the pulled pork, its richness more with the rib. Works with the brisket although the alcohol jumps with this. Nat found the Janasse with the turkey and pullled pork acquired a juicy, concentrated pomegranate note, Stacy agreed finding the combination more mellow than other wines. Greg's top wine for the meal.

Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo (Salt Lick Vineyards.) Texas Hill Country 10

The American oak-derived vanilla clobbered the turkey but for Stacy showed well with the sausage, I thought this local favorite also did well with the brisket.

Fin Amour vin de pays Côtes des Catalanes (Grenache/Carignan) 2007

Gorgeous black cherry nose. "The sweetness of the wine comes out best with the ribs’ fat and meat," said Ken. "Genius with the ribs," said Greg, a sentiment echoed by Nat whereas I thought its mineral intensity lent it a powerful undertone perhaps not in keeping with the relative lushness and smoke in the meats.

Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2010 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and Syrah)

Tight, really young. Solid with the pulled pork, better with the rib. Its youth didn't help it, perhaps a few hours decanting would've improved its reception.

McPherson Tre Colore (Mourvedre, Carignan, Viognier) Texas 2010

Soft, light and easy-to-drink, supple with the turkey if the pepper is avoided. Pleasant with the pulled pork and a bit less so with the rib. Ken found the raspberry note pleasant, I thought it an easy quaff with the brisket.

Mendel Malbec Mendoza 09

Dense prune and earth too much for the turkey. Good with the brisket with some deep black fruit coming out. "All mixed up with the earth and deep fruit notes," said Greg of the pairing with the pulled pork.

Chateau Musar 2004

Accentuates the turkey's pepper too much though weight of each is good. Balance is great though the leafiness in the wine comes out.

Neyen Red Blend (80% Carmenère/20% Cabernet Sauvignon) Colchagua Valley. 2008

Spicy with plenty of depth. Not for turkey. OK with the pulled pork. Too concentrated, forced with the rib. Mixed reviews with the brisket, some liked it while others thought it needed sauce to match the wine's rich fruit.

Quinta dos Roques Tinto, Collector's Reserva Douro 2000

From a winery best known for reviving varieties thought forgotten. Greg thought the juicy fruits worked well with the turkey which Nat found problematic. Too austere for the pulled pork and ribs.

Quivira Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. 2010

Turkey brought out the quaffing quality, the bright fruit of the wine, density worked with the pepper. Balanced beautifully with the pork, favored by a majority of the judges. OK with the ribs. Worked with the brisket but was beat up a bit by the fat. For Nat it either sang as it did with the pulled pork or was able to hold its own, making it his standout wine for the meal of mixed meats.

Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir, Carneros 2009

Overwhelmed by the turkey's pepper. Washes down easily with the brisket without adding contrast, Nat's favorite wine with the brisket.

Seghesio Barolo 2007

Streamlined and restrained which made it surprisingly good with the turkey. The fruit comes out more with the pulled pork and the rib. Too tannic and restrained in its oak for the brisket.

Cantina Taburno 'Fidelis' Aglianico del Taburno 2008

Young, just coming around, blending its red fruit very well with the turkey and pulled pork for Greg. Brought a leafy quality for Nat. A bit too bitter for the rib, good with the brisket.

Torbreck Shiraz 'The Struie' (Barossa/Eden) 2008

Rich red fruit character which doused the turkey, OK with pulled pork, a bit too much fruit for the rib and especially the brisket. A disappointment in that some at first thought the wine, delicious as it was, would be a favorite with the food.

Woodward Canyon Merlot 'Nelms Road,' Washington State 2008

Soft, easy Merlot with a good crisp squeeze at its end. Doesn't blend well with the turkey, suits all others well especially the brisket.

Conclusion: Without doubt the Aalto Ribera del Duero drew the most favorable comments for its suitability with the full range of meats along with it just being so damned good to drink. Both the Janasse and the Quivira came second for suitability both with the turkey and pulled pork, ranked well on their own followed closely by the Seghesio. Fin Amour topped out with the ribs though its mineral-driven character makes it a better candidate for cellaring than a wine for drinking on its own. It seems that no one wine set itself up for primacy with what's surely Texas' and Franklin's manifest meat, brisket.

Runners-up were Alpha, Barboursville, Caduceus, Fall Creek, and Woodward Canyon.

David Furer is a wine writer, educator and consultant, based in Austin, Texas and is on the editorial board of Sommelier Journal.

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