They say variety is the spice of life, but really it's cayenne pepper. Sprinkle enough of this pungent, piquant seasoning on anything and watch mouths water and tears run. But it's worth it -- adding spicy sauce or pepper to a half-pound burger imparts excitement to an otherwise dreary clump of meat. And Memorial Day is definitely the unofficial raw-meat-on-the-grill-day. But its unofficial side dish isn't the ghastly, mayo-laden potato salad; it's alcohol. The after-effects of spice need something that will quell the fire when your mouth feels like blacktop on a summer Florida day. But should you choose red, white or brew to ease your pain?
Back when I only knew about Bud, Miller and Milwaukee's "Beast," food and beer pairing wasn't my goal. As I aged (read: could afford), I discovered the beautiful world of craft beers, whose sharp, clean yet sweeter wheat brews toned down my atomic hot wings. But no matter how refreshing a beer tastes going down, an entire day of it still leaves me feeling like someone blew up a balloon in my stomach.
So I stick with perhaps the original "tastes great, less filling" beverage, wine.
Essentially, for anything to meld with strong spices, a spoonful of sugar helps the pepper go down. This goes for wine and beer. Wine has the natural fruit acids and tannins that help harmonize and tame strong seasonings, especially on protein-laden grill goodies. Lighter whites, such as riesling and pinot gris/grigio, refresh the palate and pair nicely with seafood items like fiery fish or shrimp. Dry rosés, far from the syrupy, inane rep they're battling, help quench the thirst built up under a sweltering sun, but also drink nicely with peppery items.
And then there's the king of bland: the hot dog. If I had my druthers, every American would drink rosé with their nitrate-laden "beef' franks, if only to drown the flavor.
With burly barbecued vittles, think bold and beautiful reds. Also think that the wine should match the sauce on the meat, rather than the meat itself, since the sauce becomes the dominant taste component. The zesty smoky-sweet stuff we slather on beef or chicken is far from wimpy, so your wine shouldn't be, either. Think something that sings with berries, with plenty of pepper and spice (not tannic and oaky), to stand up to all that brawn. Zinfandel and syrah/shiraz are considered classic barbecue wines because they have lots of fruit and peppery spice, without too much oak and tannin to cloud flavor. But if you're feeling exotic, pop open a smoky Spanish Rioja or California tempranillo (the grape in Rioja). For those wanting to stay in their comfort zone, medium to full-bodied merlots are also good matches for BBQ fare -- especially mild brats and delicious, full-flavored sausages.
A quick tip for the barbecue set-up: Since wine glasses just feel wrong when hanging at a barbecue, it's fine to use plastic cups. But avoid Styrofoam -- all you'll taste is wine-scented Styrofoam.
Pink Criquet 2006 Bordeaux Rosé (France) Soft raspberry and strawberries with firm acidity and a gorgeous finish. A hint of plum and mint make it interesting. Sw = 1. $15. *** 1/2
Gravity Hills Tumbling Tractor 2004 Zinfandel Paso Robles (California) Fragrant jammy blackberries waft up to the nose, and the mouth experiences bold cherry, with a creamy vanilla elegance. A tiny bit spicy, with white pepper, tobacco. Great with grilled items. Sw = 2. $15. ****
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Riesling Cold Creek Vineyard (Washington) Slightly sweet, with tart tangerine and citrus. Stainless steel aftertaste that's kind of cool. Sw = 4. $14. *** 1/2
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.