The Secret to Successful Grilling

What to pair with your favorite grilled dishes


Grilling season is upon us and along with not having to do dishes (HooooRahhh! And you wonder why men love to grill), we also have to recalibrate our wine parings. You see, the secret to successful grilling is making sure the wine that you serve with your meal is good. That’s mostly because grilling is almost always successful. No dishes = success!

The grill adds that special, smoky, charry, grilly (okay, make sure you clean the grill with all the time you’ve saved not doing dishes) flavor to foods and that changes the groups of wines that can pair with our favorite proteins and veggies. Pronounced oak, which adds some sweetness to a wine, as well as spice and wood notes, can really work well with your grilled food.

The flavors of the grill tend to cancel out the most egregious oak tones and that little edge of sweetness can come in handy batting the almost ubiquitous (but rarely required) saucing that seems to have become part of the grilling equation.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the greatest summer whites for Grill Season: 2011!

Photo courtesy


Grilled veggies can be great as a side. I love making simple grilled ratatouille or preparing them on their own. There are several sorts of veggies that people grill that I’ll break down into three groups.

First off are the acidic veggies: tomato, onion and pepper, for example. I like these dressed with some good olive oil and almost always pair them with a Barbera, though a good lighter bodied Cabernet Franc can be delicious here as well.

Second on my list are the more delicately flavored veggies like eggplant and squash. On their own, these veggies are lightly flavored and gently sweet, so I look for a simple fresh red like a Schiava or a Frappato; but an earthy white, like a nice Verdejo can be perfect too.

And finally there are the earthy vegetables, which in my case means mushrooms, and more specifically mushrooms that have been brushed with olive oil flavored with garlic, rosemary and black pepper. Oh baby, these are delicious and one of my favorite pairings has to be a nice, aged Chianti here!

Photo courtesy TasteBook


Grilling fish is a summertime ritual, though grilling fish successfully is more like a summer solstice: Yes it happens, but rarely. Preparation is everything, they say. If you’re gonna paint something you spend three times as much time prepping as you do painting, why would you not scrub your grill spotlessly clean after each use?

The secret to grilling fish is a clean, freshly oiled grill. When everything comes together, there’s no better way to prepare tuna, salmon or trout.

Tuna is almost steak but not quite, though it is a fish that can stand a light to medium-bodied red wine. Having said that, I still prefer a white wine with my tuna. I’ve found white Rioja Reserva to be the killer pairing here.

Salmon, on the other hand, isn’t as steak-like but it is fattier than tuna. That fat allows salmon to pair well with light red wines; the fat buffers the tannin and Pinot Noir is a natural match. Turn to Oregon or New Zealand for perfectly proportioned examples.

Trout takes us back to white wines. There is some fat under the skin of your trout, but the meat is fairly delicate so standing up to a red is tough. Try a nice white Bordeaux here. A touch of oak can work well with the grilled flavors and the blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon seems to mirror the qualities of the fish.

Photo courtesy


I do like to grill shellfish, shrimp and lobster, in particular. I’ve grilled scallops as well, but find that the grilling flavors clash with the sweet delicacy of the scallops.

Shrimp and lobster, while similar, are really different beasts when they come from the grill. Shrimp generally get a little char since the flesh comes in contact with the grill (albeit briefly), which makes for just an accent note. Lobster, on the other hand, tends to be grilled in the shell, adding nuance to some of the meat.

With that in mind, I would tend to recommend different style of wines for the two. The shrimp can take on many a nice Chenin Blanc, even versions with a suggestion of sweetness. While I generally don’t like sweetness in wines with shellfish, in this case the sweet edge can parry any bitterness that arises from the grill.

The lobster, on the other hand, is all about classic pairings and I do think that Chardonnay and lobster is a classic match. Look for a Chardonnay that has some subtle wood tones, which should help form a bridge between wine and smoke-toned lobster deliciousness.

Photo courtesy Squidoo


Grilled chicken can take many forms and here the saucing, or marinade, takes over as the most important element of the dish.

First off, let’s get one of my all-time favorite pairings out of the way. Jerk chicken loves lighter bodied Petite Sirah. If you’re grilling chicken, particularly over aromatic wood, and you’ve used a spicy rub or marinade, you’ve got to try this! End of mini rant.

If you’re grilling chicken in a European style, think of a marinade with olive oil, wine, garlic, and herbs for example, a nice rosé or Cabernet would be perfect here. Make it a little spicier and something a touch sweeter, say a nice Spanish rosé, would be appropriate.

If your marinade or sauce has more of an Asian bent (ginger, soy, maybe some sesame even), I would recommend a nice white with a touch of sweetness and spice.  Riesling could work, but Gewurtztraminer would be better.

And if you’re going the full-on American barbecue route with sticky sweet sauce, you might want to consider beer; but if you have your heart set on wine, this is a job for a fruity red, better still one with a touch of sweetness. I’m thinking Lambrusco could clean this mess up!

Photo courtesy How to Grill Book


Since I’m talking about grilling, not barbecuing (and yes there is a world of hurt coming to those who ignore the difference), pork has a broader definition than the ribs one might expect here.

Sausages might be the most commonly grilled pork products and they really run the gamut in flavors, though one feature of all well-made pork sausages is their juicy fat content. Mmmmm, juicy fat. That means that when choosing a wine to pair with sausages, be on the lookout for higher acid wines. For mild sausages, consider a nice Gruner Veltliner and as the spice level increases, look towards bigger wine, Alsatian Pinot Gris, for example. Examples of Oregon Pinot Gris might also work as the sausages get spicier, since many of these wines are a touch sweet.

Other grilled pork items tend to mimic chicken, in that the method of preparation tends to take precedence over the meat. I like to serve Spanish wines from Priorat or Ribera del Duero with pork loin in a Spanish-style rub, for example. Referring to the chicken recommendations is a good idea here.

Photo courtesy Alan's Kitchen


Finally we get to the meat of the situation – pun intended, yet poorly executed. Big juicy steaks and meaty hamburger are definitely part of the summer protocol at my house, and wine is always at hand to pair with.

Unlike many of the meats that we’ve already discussed, beef tend to be grilled au naturel. There are rarely marinades involved or sauces used, though my burgers do tend to see some ketchup.

For burgers, having a nice fruity red on hand is a no brainer. I like Zinfandel here, though a good Argentine Bonarda can certainly give Zin a run for its money.

Once we get into steak country though, the reds tend to get a little more serious. This is where the char of the grill really can come into play, so I don’t shy away from oakier wines here. There are many wines that work so well here that I could write a several page list; but the short version would have Malbec for less aged beef, Syrah for aged beef, and Mourvedre for super-aged beef. Gamy meets gamy here and the results can be spectacular.

Happy successful grilling!

Photo courtesy Gorge Burger

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  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,354

    Damn GDP - why must you mock me and my lack of grill? This makes me want to spend a weekend in the country.

    Jul 27, 2011 at 11:56 AM

  • Snooth User: TomG
    40947 44

    Hi Greg - a question and a suggestion:
    - question: I usually grill a mix of vegetables of all three types (tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, eggplant, peppers, squash, etc.) What would you suggest for a wine to work with the lot?
    - suggestion for grilling fish: I've never been able to get my grill clean enough or well-oiled enough to keep fish from sticking. Two things have helped. One is to put a piece of heavy-duty foil, just big enough to hold the fish, on the grill before I start it, then slice the foil between the grill rods so that each is covered by a strip; then pinch the strips around the rods so that they're loosely wrapped. The other thing is to let the grill heat up completely before putting the fish on. As the metal rods heat up, they expand and if the fish is on while this is happening, the skin bonds to the metal. I usually get the grill hotter than I want, then put the fish down to get nice grill marks, then immediately reduce the heat to cooking temperature. Hope this helps!

    Jul 27, 2011 at 3:23 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,830

    For grilled vegetables, especially if some good olive oil is involved, I've never found a better wine than Barbera. Even a Barbera with some age works well here. You've got all that succulent acidity and the oak in the wine can be matched by all the smoke and char created by grilling your veggies.

    Nice tips for grilling fish, both very effective. Thanks for contributing!

    Jul 27, 2011 at 5:09 PM

  • We love grilling at our house but I don't know where you come up with the idea that there are no dishes to do. If you are entertaining with wine and great grilled food then you need beautiful dishes to serve it in. Just saying.....

    Aug 04, 2011 at 10:20 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,830

    I manage to get through with few to none, though admittedly while not entertaining. One trick I've developed for some of my meals is to use flour tortillas over a plate, you then get to eat up the mess!

    Aug 04, 2011 at 10:32 AM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,003

    Sure, you eat on dishes, but pots and pans are reduced. Major advantage to the grill.

    Aug 10, 2012 at 7:41 PM

  • wine for spare ribs and brots

    Aug 31, 2012 at 11:24 PM

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