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Red, White and 'Cue

As he gets ready to open his new Manhattan barbecue joint, Danny Meyer discovers which wines go best with ribs and pulled pork.

Danny Meyer, the man who created Manhattan's Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla, is talking barbecue. Actually, he's talking about pairing wine with barbecue--which is what he intends to do at Blue Smoke, a restaurant set to open around year's end on East 27th Street. The secret, he says, is to think of the wine not as a partner for the food but rather as an accent that can bring out hidden qualities--a condiment, as he likes to put it.

With that principle in mind, Meyer and I recently sat down in the Union Square Cafe, amid vases of blossom-bearing branches, and performed an experiment. Meyer had had Tennessee-style fixings overnighted from his barbecue guru, Mike Mills, of the 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, Illinois. (Starting this fall, 17th Street will ship barbecue nationwide; 888-417-THRIB.) Before us, we each had five glasses of wine selected from Union Square's list. Our aim was to find out how each paired with Mills' baby back ribs, his juicy pulled-pork shoulder, his sweet baked beans and his tangy barbecue sauce. Here's what we learned.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon, NV Brut Réserve
The Champagne worked, triumphantly, with everything. Why? "Probably for the same reason beer does," Meyer said. "It's refreshing. The bubbles cleanse the heat from your palate. There's plenty of acidity, which goes with the vinegar and the tomatoes in the barbecue sauce. And it cuts through the richness of the pork." The Billecart-Salmon is the house Champagne at three of his restaurants (and the one he drank at his wedding). "It doesn't dominate the palate with wood or yeast. It has a very clean finish. And on top of that, at $29 a bottle it's an extraordinary value."

Dry White 1999 Lusco Albariño
This Spanish wine has a delicately floral leading edge, a fragrance of honeysuckle and peaches, and a hint of sweet fruit on the palate. It was superb with the ribs and the pulled pork. "A little sweetness with pork is great," Meyer said. "Think of pork with fruit chutneys or applesauce."

But the wine tasted sour when we paired it with the beans. "It can't handle something that's sweeter than it is," Meyer observed. "The sweetness crushes it. The same thing happens when you try to pair dessert wine with an even sweeter dessert."

"Then what do you do," I asked, "if you're serving ribs and beans?"

"Enjoy your meal!" he shot back.

Soft Red 1997 Neyers Merlot
A wonderful California Merlot, the Neyers was the second most versatile wine we tried. The secret, Meyer said, was its soft tannins, which dry the mouth. "Coffee and tea are tannic too," Meyer explained. "That's why people add milk--to soften the tannins."

"And that's exactly what we're doing here. The wine tames the pork's richness with tannin, and the fat in the pork softens the wine, making drinking it an incredible experience."

Tannic Red 1997 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Though this Italian Sangiovese was delicious with the ribs, it wasn't quite as good with the pulled pork. Its fruit wasn't quite sweet or ripe enough, Meyer explained, to stand up to the fatty pork shoulder. "But you can't make that generalization of all Sangioveses," he cautioned. "California Sangioveses, and even some Chianti Classicos, have sweeter fruit.

"I'm not talking about sweet wine," he said. "I'm talking dry wine with ripe fruit and warmer growing conditions that lead to riper fruit. As the grapes ripen, they get sweeter; since some of that sugar converts to alcohol, you get a bigger-bodied wine.

"Smoke likes sweet," he continued, enunciating a general barbecue principle. "One of my favorite things when I was growing up was maple syrup on bacon. It's the same idea."

Rosé 1999 Castello di Ama Rosato
This Tuscan rosé had a faintly minerally scent, pleasant but restrained; when we tasted it, it was dry. But it paired wonderfully with the beans. Meyer was surprised--and fascinated.

"The sweetness in the beans," he reasoned, "brought out the sweet raspberry and cherry fruit in that wine." It was better with the beans than it was on its own. It's the opposite of the Albariño, which led with a faint sweetness but couldn't keep up with the beans.

"And it wasn't too delicate for the ribs or the other meat. It had abundant acid, and in this it acted a little bit like the Champagne. The acid served as a palate cleanser with the rich barbecue. It was refreshing."

The Castello di Ama, he went on, actually had a bit less fruit than other rosés. "I've tried this with a Joseph Phelps Grenache Rosé, which has a very forward strawberry nose, and it was equally delicious with everything."

Part of the secret, he thought, was the tannins. "Rosé is basically a red wine where skins are left in the juice for a very short time--but still long enough to give off a little bit of tannin. Maybe that's what makes rosés such a nice foil for richer food.

"And then there's the color. When people are matching wines, color is a player! Think of how perfectly rosé and salmon go together. Properly smoked meat is pink, barbecue sauce is red, and pink goes with both."

Which led him to sum up our experiment with this final thought. "The perfect wine for me to drink with barbecue," he said, "would be a Billecart-Salmon Rosé Champagne. Then I'd have it all."

--Lisa Amand is a restaurant columnist for the New York Daily News.

Published July 2001
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