Officially, Labor Day is a celebration of the labor movement in the US and the dogged efforts of hard working Americans everywhere that make this nation great. Unofficially, Labor Day is a highly anticipated three day weekend for grilling enthusiasts across the country to impress family and friends. Sure, there will be plenty of coolers full of beer and pitchers of iced tea to wash down charred meats and wiggly Jell-O molds, but don’t carefully prepared culinary masterpieces of the grilled and chilled variety deserve the same respect as their fine-dining brethren? In my opinion, even the lowliest of prepared or packaged foods has a wine pairing or two that can transform ingestion for mere sustenance to a memorable, or at least pleasurable, experience. And really, that’s what Labor Day is all about: Enjoying oneself and taking a break from the 9-5 rat race…at least for one long weekend.
In the days building up to the 4th of July or Labor Day there’s certainly no shortage of articles suggesting wine pairings for outdoor cuisine. Very few articles, however, stray away from suggestions of popular international varieties- Zin with big smoky BBQ, Cab Sauv for steaks, Chardonnay for chicken, Provence Rosé or bubbly of one fashion or another for everything else. Since I live in Kentucky and (full disclosure) it’s my job to promote Kentucky’s wine industry, I thought it would be fun to pair some grilling favorites with wines popularly produced east of the Mississippi.
First and foremost, when in doubt go for something pink. Rosé is the ultimate food friendly wine, even more so when it’s hot outside. Most rosé is produced from red grapes with a very brief maceration (time spent on the skins). The short contact with the skins prior to pressing is long enough to impart a bit of color but not usually long enough to provide the noticeable tannins and weight associated with red wines. The grape varieties that make up the typical encépagement of the ever popular rosés of Provence are ideally suited for the Mediterranean climate of Southern France but not so great for the finicky continental or sub-tropical climates of the Midwest or Southern U.S. Look out for pale pink dry Chambourcin or Chancellor rosés. Both varieties grow well throughout the Eastern US and can produce dry rosé wines with elegant ripe summer berry aromas and tart acidity that’ll pair with everything from pulled pork to grilled shrimp skewers.
As previously mentioned, Zinfandel (also known in Italy as Primitivo and in the Czech Republic as the tongue twisting Crljenak Kaštelanski) is a popular pairing for smoked and grilled meats. Not to be confused with the medium-sweet (pink) White Zinfandel, the Zinfandel we’re talking about here is the weighty, high alcohol, low acidity, jammy and peppery red wines from places like Lodi and Paso Robles. These goliath wines are superb for winter evenings by the fire place and contemplative reflections whilst watching sitcoms on a Thursday night but I don’t think they work very well as accompaniments to grilled or smoked meat on the back patio when the mercury is pushing dangerously close to the 90° mark.
I like slightly lighter reds, wines that are brimming with red fruit aromas and limited oak interaction that wouldn’t mind 15-20 minutes of chilling prior to popping the cork. The idea is to have a wine that can stand up to the boldness of the grilled meat but cleanse the palate as opposed to adding extra weight. Cabernet Franc, Baco Noir and Frontenac all fit the bill here. Baco and Frontenac are both hybrid varieties that, in the right hands, can produce pretty but structured red wines dominated by red raspberry, currant and cherry flavors. Cab Franc is a Vitas vinifera (European) grape variety popular in the Loire Valley and the Right Bank of Bordeaux. One of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc typically produces lighter wines that have a peppery note as well as displaying raspberry, red currant and violet aromas.
What about white wines, you ask? Grilled fish, crab legs, pasta salad and even potato chips are a perfect excuse (if you’re looking for one) to open a nicely chilled bottle of white. Labor Day parties are often a smorgasbord of grilled meats and side dishes with a myriad of ingredients and flavor combinations. Although I’m a big fan of Gewürztraminer with Chinese and Indian dishes, I tend to shy away from wines with highly expressive aromas and flavor profiles and instead reach for crisp and versatile white wines. Tossing a few bottles of Chardonel, Seyval Blanc, Vidal or Vignoles amongst the craft beers in your cooler on the patio won’t go unnoticed by appreciative guests. A cross between Seyval and Chardonnay, Chardonel is an incredibly versatile grape capable of producing wine of excellent quality. The occasional moniker, “The Chardonnay of the South,” may be a bit hokey but it’s not that far off of the truth.
And finally, the sun has set, those still standing are hungry again and it’s time to throw the best meat on the grill. It’s hard to argue that Cabernet Sauvignon and a good cut of steak isn’t a match made in heaven- believe me, it’s true. But, if you’re looking for something slightly off of the beaten path, try sipping a Norton with your filet. The history of this notable grape is a bit muddled, but there are very few varieties as intrinsically tied to the U.S. wine industry as Norton. Big, inky, dark and somewhat foreboding in the glass a well-made Norton is chock-full of bramble, stewed fruit, black pepper and baking spice. The tannins can be somewhat astringent but the best versions are well integrated with a full body and good acidy. Just be sure to wipe the stains off of your teeth before smiling for any pictures. Happy Labor Day
Tyler Madison, Dip WSET