Oak Meets Smoke: Wine Pairings for Grilled Foods

Many wine drinkers disdain oaky flavors in the glass. But F&W’s Kristin Donnelly, a contrarian, argues that a nicely toasty red or white wine is sometimes the perfect match for a beautifully grilled dish.

    By Kristin Donnelly

I’ve always preferred lean, clean whites and reds so light they resemble rosés. But last year, I had a revelation with a wine I would normally never choose to drink: a rich, ripe Australian blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (GSM, as they call it), loaded with the toasty, vanilla-like flavors of new American oak. Oaky wines, in general, don’t pair well with food, because they can overwhelm most flavors. But this red was delicious with a grilled steak—the char on the meat seemed to mellow the wine’s oakiness and make the fruit taste vibrant and juicy. It occurred to me that grilled foods and oaked wines are a great match.

While oak isn’t as fashionable as it once was, wines aged in new oak barrels can develop more complexity than those aged in stainless steel. When toasted to a winemaker’s specifications, new barrels can contribute notes of spice, vanilla, caramel, chocolate and coffee and soften a wine’s texture. Wine geeks debate the merits of French oak (which is more expensive and gives wines subtle spice flavors, like nutmeg) versus American oak (sweeter, with more vanilla and coconut). But really, all that matters is that the oak flavors are balanced.

Unfortunately, some Chardonnay producers, especially in California, became so oak-happy that their wines began to taste like sweet sawdust. Other producers aggressively oaked Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs, creating wines that tasted more like wood than fruit. Yes, too much oak is a bad thing. But my pairing epiphany has taught me that the use of new oak is a very good thing when it comes to a wine that goes well with grilled food.

I enlisted F&W’s Test Kitchen supervisor, Marcia Kiesel, in an experiment: She created bold-flavored dishes for the grill, and I found oaked wines to match. The resulting pairings are astoundingly good. One favorite is a grilled cheese that’s actually cooked on a grill! Layered with Gruyère, charred zucchini and a smoked paprika pesto, this sandwich would be called a panino at a wine bar. But with everything snug inside an English muffin, its kid-friendly name is apt. When we tried it with a lightly oaked Sauvignon Blanc, I was amazed by how refreshing it was—a perfect pairing.

For everyday drinking, I still prefer a zingy Chablis or a light, minerally red Burgundy. But grill me some scallops and I’ll break out the oaky Chardonnay.

More Perfect Pairings & Recipes:

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Published June 2009

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