Can any wine edge out beer as a match for those brawny backyard party foods ― hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs? Answering the question had seemed like a light (or at least lighthearted) assignment, but in the course of the two-hour task, Sunset's wine-and-food-pairing panel went from loving their jobs to checking Craigslist for an out.
The math was daunting: 14 wines ― red, white, pink, and sparkling ― to taste with 5 dishes plus variations (veggie burgers, chili on the dogs) and sides (you have to factor in the fries).
As long as the wine lineup was, it was focused. For whites we waived Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for the more aromatic Chenin Blanc and dry Riesling. Our rosé was targeted toward the grill; it was made from Syrah. Reds included the high-potential regular Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel.
Our sparklers were a blanc de noirs, for that Pinot fruitiness, and ― the wild card ― a deep red bubbly, also made mostly from Pinot (sparkling reds are all the rage in Australia but exceedingly rare here).
The average food-and-wine tasting elicits piercing comments on ballots, along the lines of "the lemon grass echoes a little citrus zest in the Sauvignon Blanc." The notes this time around took on an air of confession: "Funny, I like this bubbly with fries," and "Wow, the Petite Sirah tastes good with ketchup (not so good with relish)," and "Who says we shouldn't drink Merlot? I like Merlot."
Many bites and all the wine we could handle (it's very hard to spit when you're pairing) yielded surprises. Although very good, Zinfandel ― the go-to barbecue wine in our minds ― was not our runaway favorite.
The dry Syrah rosé made the most great matches instead. Chenin Blanc set off more hearty dishes than we had expected ― a most versatile wine. And the most fun conclusion of all: We loved the fully red sparkling wine with almost everything.