WASHINGTON — You may not know it, but I am obsessed with barbecue.
Not cooking food over a flame — that’s grilling, which is kind of like using an outdoor broiler in reverse. No, I am talking about spending hours smoking over an indirect heat source, usually employing various combinations of wood (hickory, mesquite, apple, cherry, etc.), to get just the right flavor infused into the meat.
I smoke ribs: St. Louis cut, of course, and chicken. I’ve done turkey for Thanksgiving and brisket for Passover. I’ve even tried my hand at salmon, although that appears to be a work in progress.
The good news is that I have become pretty good at smoking meats, and I now get requests to either serve barbecue when hosting at home or bring barbecue when invited out. The bad news is trying to find the right wine to go with the right dish.
The challenge isn’t just about trying to pair the wine with the protein. It starts to get a bit more thought-provoking when you factor in all of the classic side dishes — coleslaw, beans, potato and cornbread. Things get even more interesting when a vinegar-based sauce gets thrown on the menu, vs. a tangy tomato-based sauce.
Well, through a process of trial-and-error, I have narrowed the field down to a few reliable candidates.
I’m all for an old-fashioned North Carolina barbecue, but the traditional vinegar-based sauce that usually rides shotgun with the pulled pork is a red flag when it comes to red wine. Fortunately, pork is a mild meat that plays well at both ends of the wine-color spectrum. The fattiness of the meat should be enough to bring wines with abundant acidity and a touch of residual sugar into focus.
Therefore, my pick for pulled-pork runs more along the lines of slightly off-dry whites that can tame the vinegar and quench the palate. The 2015 Longshadow Winery, Poet’s Leap Riesling from the Columbia Valley of Washington State is perfect. Armin Diel is one of Germany’s most acclaimed riesling producers. He uses Washington state fruit to craft this gorgeous riesling, which features flavors of white fig, honeydew melon and ripe nectarine. Hints of apricots and minerals are the star on the long, unctuous finish. The wine is just ever-so-slightly off-dry, but the laser-focused acidity keeps the sweet of the wine and the heat of the sauce in check. $20
My smoked chicken wings are the hit of the party and usually earn a return invitation when I bring them along on tailgates and picnics with friends. The rub is enlivened by hot paprika and cayenne peppers, so the heat is definitely noticeable, but not overpowering. Gewürztraminer doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, but a well-chilled 2014 Trimbach Gewurztraminer from the Alsace region of France is a wine Romeo to my wing’s Juliet. It’s loaded with pretty scents of acacia and passion fruit on the nose that certainly garner attention, but it’s the wonderfully ripe flavors of apricots, white nectarines and orange peel in the mouth that provide enough depth and structure to really showcase the wine and stand up to the food. $20
When I make my St. Louis-style smoked ribs, I say damn the vinegar, full red sauce ahead. Between my spicy rub and the sweet-and-heat mop (sauce), I need a really big, spicy, red zinfandel whose red fruit flavors can enhance the underlying richness of the ribs while the bold tannins can stand up to the natural acidity of the sauce. The 2014 Paso Ranches Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel from Paso Robles, California is bourbon-barrel aged for three months, which complements the touch of bourbon I use in my mop. This is a big, spicy wine, featuring loads of blackberry, dark plum and boysenberry flavors on the well-balanced frame. Notes of black pepper and vanilla come through loud and clear on the spicy finish, with a touch of caramel and charred oak. $20
Brisket takes a really long time to smoke — sometimes up to 20 hours. So the wine I reward myself with at the end of the cooking marathon has to compliment the effort as well as the deliciously smoky meat. My pick is the slightly pricey, but ever-so-worth-it 2012 Numnathia “Numanthia” from Toro, Spain. It is the estate’s signature style, made from a selection fruit from vineyards whose vines are usually 70 to 100 years old. These low-yielding vines produce a wine with a bouquet that is lively and intense. Concentrated and velvety tannins support flavors of black cherries, raspberries and cassis in the mouth. Long and elegant on the finish with highlights of dark fruit, cocoa, and toasted oak, this wine is complex and delicious and just perfect with smoky meat. $50