Aside from an incident in Maine last summer, when I inadvertently tried to turn my hand into a chicken fajita, I’ve had a long and happy relationship with grilling. I attribute this to the fact that grilling doesn’t require a lot of thought—more, obviously, than I’ve given it at times, but not a lot. It’s a forgiving method of cooking.
Similarly, pairing wine with grilled foods is a forgiving task. Most grilled dishes are relatively simple; there’s a main ingredient (usually a protein of some kind), plus the possibility of various seasonings in the form of marinades, rubs and sauces. To choose a wine to pair with something off the grill, consider two things: First, how hearty is the food, and second, what’s the dominant flavor? For lighter foods—white-fleshed fish, vegetables, chicken breasts—pick a lighter wine. For heartier foods—sausages, burgers, steaks—choose a more robust wine. (Both reds and whites can be light-, medium- or full-bodied.) Now think about flavor. For steaks and butterflied legs of lamb—even if they’re marinated beforehand—the dominant flavor will almost always be the meat itself. But with foods like chicken slathered in barbecue sauce or shrimp with a fiery garlic-habanero vinaigrette, the sauce or seasoning is by far the main flavor of the dish. The dominant flavor is a key thing to consider when selecting a wine.
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What follows is a selection of great wines, all available for $25 or less, to go with grilled foods of all kinds. But don’t take these wine and food combinations as gospel. They’re really designed more as suggestions or jumping-off points for experimentation. Unlike most everything else that Americans like to drink, such as milk and beer, wine is high in acidity, which refreshes the palate; most reds have fat-cutting tannins, too. In fact, wine may be the most versatile food partner there is, except perhaps for water. But when it comes to a big, juicy, grilled steak, who on earth wants to have it with water?