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Grate BBQ

This coming Saturday, I’m going to be breaking out the smokers, a dozen pounds of pig and a bit of cow. To me, barbecue is one of the most fascinating cuisines to pair wine with. Though some might say that there really isn’t a great wine pairing for it, or that you should match simple wine with simple food, it’s my opinion that these people don’t know what they’re doing in a pit. To prove my point, let’s play a game: It’s called “Wine Spectator Note or Chris’s Brisket Tasting Note?” The rules are simple I’ll give you a tasting note and you decide whether it is for a wine or a slowly smoked brisket.

1)   “Shows delectable earth, game, smoke and baconlike aromas and flavors.”

This is obviously brisket, right? Nope, it’s a Wine Spectator note for a 94-point Syrah from Côte-Rôtie.

2)   “Beefy, roasted earth, and bloody iron notes, all backed by grilled herbs.”

I’m sure you get the point. This is from a 93-point Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch in South Africa.

See, the two are pretty common. But there’s no reason to use smoky, beefy reds for everything, there’s a lot to play off in BBQ. Let me explain how I’ll be preparing my food, and then what I’ll choose to drink with them.

My smoke box has two grates, so when I have occasion to use it, I put a pork shoulder on the bottom, a brisket on the top, and I shove racks of baby backs in wherever they’ll fit. The day begins early with making a rub for the meat. There’s no science to it, but the one invariable is salt. Salt will actually dehydrate the meat, and as the meat is expelling water, it will fill the void with the surrounding spices, infusing the meat with the flavor of the rub. I typically do about one cup of paprika, one of salt, one of brown sugar, one of granulated garlic, one of dried onion flakes, and then heaping spoonfuls of chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin and black pepper. Then you rub the meat. Let your friends’ juvenile jokes roll off you back and really rub the spice into the meat – don’t be bashful.

Then there’s starting the fire. First I use lump charcoal and let the flames die down before I put it in the column. The aim is to get the internal temperature of the smoker around 225 degrees. If it’s too hot, close the grates and choke the flame. If it’s not hot enough, add some hardwood (hardwood burns hotter than charcoal). The easiest to find is typically Hickory (sometimes labeled as “firespice” in the barbecue section of your local hardware store), which gives off a strong smoke flavor. If you’re looking for something a little less pungent, you may want oak, and if you’re looking for something a little fruitier, check out apple, cherry or pecan.

Baby Back Ribs

After about two hours of smoke penetration, you should take out the ribs and lather liberally with some barbecue sauce. Then wrap the racks tightly with tin foil and cook for another hour and a half or until the rack bends as you pick it up with tongs. When they’re done, they should pull apart easily with your fingers. The tender chunks of meat between the ribs will be the gamiest meat in the smoker and maybe the most interesting. In addition to the game, these have the most surface area exposed to your initial rub, and therefore, will be the spiciest.

Sometimes I like to temper this heat with an off-dry Riesling, but if I can find some, I love my baby backs with a Jurançon Sec from South West France. While this should be pretty dry, the ripeness of fruit and tropical flavors seem to absorb the heat. The wine also has some smoky flavors of it own, which seem to come from the flinty minerality, adding another layer to the smoke rather than making it thicker.

As for reds, I usually like a juicy Shiraz with more acidity than alcohol. My absolute favorite all-time pairing was a weird bottle I stumbled across working at a shop in Boston: a 1978 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel. This off-dry Zin had amazingly retained the grape’s characteristic spice and juicy fruit, which absorbed the heat of the ribs. The wine’s oak had grown into a rich and aromatic cedar, which layered on the smokiness of the meat, while its tertiary earthy character added a new bass note that filled out the umami quality of the pairing.

Pork Shoulder

Pork shoulder takes some dedication. Let me rephrase: Pork shoulder takes some restraint. It’s hard not to enjoy a beer or 10 while watching the smoker’s temperature during the 10 to 12 hours this massive hunk of meat will take to cook. Luckily, pork shoulder is probably the most versatile of the three, so you’ll be able to pair, even with a healthy buzz going. I find that the best way to cook this is to smoke it for about six hours, then baste and cover it in tin foil and finish in an oven at 350 degrees for about three hours, rather than drying it out for an extra three in the smoker. When it’s done, you should be able to separate the meat easily with two forks. The resulting meat will be smoky and juicy with exceptionally sweet fat.

I find this to be a perfect match with a lean Sancerre, Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc or even mountain Chards. The acidity in these wines will cut through the fat of the meat so that you get the sweet flavor without weighing down your palate.

As for reds, do your due diligence and find some Chilean Carignan. This often austere, high-acidity variety will have the same effects as the whites on the texture of the palate, but will add to the flavor of the meat, bringing in more tension between the sweet fat and the racy almost bitter red fruits.


This is probably the most satisfying hunk of meat to come from the smoking column, and except for exceptional rib efforts, it is always the first to go at the table. A larger brisket will take all the smoke you can give it. I usually max out around five hours before wrapping it to maintain moisture and cooking it for another three hours. When it’s done, there will be a pink ring of smoke penetration a third of an inch thick all the way around.

This is where you bring out loud reds. Huge Syrahs and Cabs are perfect. If you’re scared by how weighty this meal might get, pick a young and sexy Malbec. If you want more elegance, Côte-Rôtie mimics the flavor of smoked brisket to a T. That said, my favorite brisket wine is Priorat. This intensity of this dense red will more than keep pace with all the untamed flavors in the meat. The salt-based rub of the meat will make this young wine’s tannins less perceptible, leaving the concentrated old-vine fruit to soak up spice and act as a foil to the meat.

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisHallowell

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