Those who bask in the sun year-round are fortunate to be able to grill in comfort all of the time, but for most northerners, grilling is a seasonal thing. It isn't as if people set their calendars accordingly, but for whatever reason, Memorial Day is a summons for barbecue chefs to fire up the outdoor grill. Party on.
We like to slow smoke ribs and pork butts because a conventional gas grill or an indoor oven cannot recreate the flavors that come from smoking wood chips. Whether your choice is a Weber grill or a Big Green Egg, a slow-cooked pork butt is a great way to spend a holiday with friends. It's relatively inexpensive and can easily serve a crowd.
Smoked barbecue fare such as pulled pork, ribs, and burgers calls for fruity wines to match the sweet, ketchup- based sauces that are slathered on the meat during and after it is cooked. Merlot, malbec, and syrah will work well, but we prefer zinfandel because it is bold, ripe, and an all-American grape variety – perfect for a day that memorializes those who have paid the ultimate price for serving their country.
Although zinfandel has its origins in Croatia, it is a grape variety that is not grown elsewhere as "zinfandel." The vines are often old because of their home-winemaking appeal during Prohibition and their survival from the 1980s devastation caused by widespread phylloxera disease.
Zinfandel ines traditionally struggle to reach water and their gnarly, twisted appearance adds to their brazen image. Zinfandel also is one of the few grapes that loves heat, which can produce wines with alcohol levels several percentage points higher than other wines. Beware! Alcohol gives wine more body, a perfect foil to smoked food. And its raisin flavors marry well with sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauces.
Fire up the grill and try some of these zinfandels:
Dry Creek Heritage Vines Zinfandel Sonoma County 2106 ($36). The blend is 79 percent zinfandel with a bit of petite sirah and primitivo. This is a very balanced, food-friendly zinfandel presenting a berry-driven wine with a hint of oak. Smooth tannins.
Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel 2015 ($39). Ravenswood is serious about zinfandel. Its founder, Joel Peterson, sold the brand to Constellation in 2001, but his legacy for "no wimpy wines" lives on. The Belloni has been one of our favorites year to year. It's blended with 25 percent "mixed black grapes," but the Belloni fruit from the cool Russian River Valley provides depth of dark fruit flavor, a floral nose and a dash of spice. We also love the Old Hill Zinfandel ($60) for its immense structure.
Sidebar Russian River Valley Old Vine Zinfandel 2016 ($28). Fourteen other varieties – mostly alicante and petite sirah -- are blended with zinfandel in this exotic melangé of flavors. Rich, lush mouthfeel with copious dark red fruit flavors.
Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel 2015 ($39). Brambly in personality, this dense and balanced zinfandel has notes of ripe blackberries, chocolate, pepper and tobacco.
Artezin Zinfandel Mendocino County 2016 ($18). This is a well-priced zinfandel that exhibits exuberant briary, berry flavors with subtle spice elements. The content is 85 percent zinfandel with a dash of petite sirah and carignan.
Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel 2014 ($17). Rich Frank was president of Disney Studios for more than a decade, but today his studio is at an historic property in Napa Valley. His zinfandel is consistently good year after year. Layers of fresh fruit, depth and texture.
Cline Family Cellars Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2016 ($15). We've been drinking Ancient Vines zin for more than a decade and continue to marvel at the price-to-quality ratio. Made from grapes grown on vines more than 100 years old, this zinfandel is packed with juicy black fruit flavors and a dose of spice and black pepper.
Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi 2015 ($22). This wine produced by Don Sebastiani and Sons is a joy to drink for zinfandel lovers. Bright lush plum and berry fruit a little oak and very moth filling.
Shooting Star Zinfandel 2015 ($14). From Mendocino County, this simple but delicious zinfandel from Jed Steele has ripe, raisin-like berry flavors with a hint of chocolate.
OTHER BBQ WINES
If zinfandel isn't your thing, here are a few other red wines that would complement grilled meats and sauces:
Purple Heart Red Wine Sonoma County 2015 ($20). A collaboration between C. Mondavi & Family and the Purple Heart Foundation, here is a perfect wine for the decorated veteran in your family. A blend of merlot, zinfandel, petit verdot and cabernet franc, it has ripe plum and currant flavors with a hint of licorice and oak.
Rodney Strong Reserve Malbec Sonoma County 2014 ($40). Not many California wineries bottle a varietal malbec, but after tasting this seductive offering from Rodney Strong maybe they should. Very expressive berries, red currant and plum present in the nose and mouth. Rich and smooth and ready to drink.
Kendall-Jackson Reserve Syrah Santa Barbara County 2015 ($17). The coastal vineyards around Santa Barbara are producing some of California’s best syrah. Oodles of fresh boysenberry and plums with a delightful spice element. This is an amazing value for one of the best syrahs we have tasted recently.
Anaba Wines Turbine Red Sonoma Valley 2015 ($35). We loved this delicious Rhone-style blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and petit sirah. Plum and blackberry fruit flavors with an earthy feel and lavender aromas.
Two Angels Petite Sirah Red Hills Lake County 2015 ($30). This is a real mouthful of spectacular red wine. Classic California petite sirah with blueberry and blackberry elements with a hint of mocha and oak. This wine is terrific by itself or can stand up to any bold flavored foods.