Smoky grilled foods aren’t hard to pair with wine. F&W’s Ray Isle explains simple rules and names 25 affordable, easy-to-find bottles.

By Ray Isle
Updated June 14, 2017

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.

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?

25 Great Wines to Pair with Grilled Foods

White & Rosé Wines

2015 Estate Argyros Atlantis Santorini White ($17)

Made mostly from the Assyrtiko grape, this crisp, citrusy blend gets a floral hint from a bit of Athiri.

2015 Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($15)

A wonderful balance of brash lime, herb and tropical flavors.

2014 Leitz Dragonstone Rheingau Riesling ($17)

Full of slightly sweet lemon chiffon and cherry flavors.

2014 Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Eroica Colombia Valley Riesling ($19)

Light-bodied and vibrant, with bright apple, lime and orange tones.

2015 Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($17)

A bit of effervescence adds freshness to citrus and grass notes.

2015 Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence Rosé ($17)

A great candidate for a house rosé, bursting with juicy melon, berry and orange-zest notes.

2014 Chehalem INOX Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($18)

This unoaked Chardonnay, which brims with lemon, lime and green pear, is an excellent value.

2015 Château St-Martin de la Garrigue Picpoul de Pinet ($17)

The Picpoul (pronounced “peek pool”) grape makes zingy, super-refreshing whites such as this citrusy, mineral-rich version.

2015 Pieropan Soave Classico ($19)

Crisp and bold, with supple apple, quince and chalk flavors.

NV Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco ($17)

Accessibly priced and very appealing, this delivers a mix of stone fruit, flowers and apples.

2014 Sokol Blosser Willamette Valley Pinot Gris ($19)

Fresh and medium-bodied, with intriguing notes of green fig.

2015 Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko ($25)

Dense yet not heavy, this zippy Assyrtiko has a chalky minerality and savory lemon flavors that linger on the palate.

NV Tío Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry ($19)

A fabulous aperitif, thanks to its crisp, refreshing apple and straw tones and a hint of saltiness.

2013 Qupé Santa Ynez Valley Marsanne ($19)

Made with Marsanne that was fermented and aged in neutral oak and a bit of Roussanne aged in French oak, this white shows a thick texture, zesty citrus and minerals.

2015 St. Supéry Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

Guava, passion fruit and peach flavors are fragrant and crisp.

2014 Terras Gauda Abadia de San Campio Rias Baixas Albariño ($17)

Albariño’s sea-salty, citrusy side is clearly evident in this delicious single-vineyard wine.

Red Wines

2013 Genesis Columbia Valley Syrah ($18)

This spicy, fragrant Syrah has a particularly firm structure.

2014 Layer Cake California Cabernet Sauvignon ($14)

Aging in used Hundred Acre barrels gives this red’s luscious blackberry flavors a gentle cedar note.

2012 Bodega Norton Reserva Lujan de Cuyo Malbec ($17)

Muscular tannins support rich berry, herb and vanilla flavors.

2012 Masi Campofiorin Veronese ($15)

A secondary fermentation using partially dried grapes adds richness to this bottling’s silky red-fruit flavors.

2012 Quivira Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($22)

A juicy, robust wine with wild berry and plum flavors that firm up in the finish.

2014 Selvapiana Chianti Rùfina ($17)

Deliciously fresh and balanced, with ripe fruit and floral notes.

2013 Edmeades Mendocino County Zinfandel ($15)

Winemaker Ben Salazar adds some Petite Sirah and Syrah to give this racy, berry-driven Zin its oomph.

2014 J. Hofstätter Südtirol- Alto Adige Lagrein ($21)

Vibrant, lightly earthy red plum and raspberry tones showcase Lagrein’s supple, accessible side.

2013 Potel-Aviron Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent ($23)

Made only in the best vintages from very old vines, this is structured and serious, with lush, spicy fruit.

Updated August 2016. Selections are from the 2012 F&W Wine Guide.