Hot sunny days inspire a primitive urge to make fire and roast up large hunks of meat for tribes of hungry carnivores. In other words: It's grilling season.
While most folks are content to wash down their grilled fare with gallons of cheap watery beer, I have a better idea: Wine.
Unlike flavorless beer (not that I'm a wine snob or anything), wine has the power to take your flame-grilled beast (or even veggie burgers) to new heights of flavor. When choosing wines for grilled vittles, think bold and beautiful. Cookout flavors are far from wimpy, so your wine shouldn't be either. You need something big and fruity, with plenty of pepper and spice, to stand up to all that smoldering meat and smoky-sweet barbecue sauce. Overly tannic or oaky wines need not apply.
Zinfandel and Syrah/Shiraz are considered classic cookout wines because they have lots of fruit and spice, without too much oak and tannin to get in the way. Medium to full-bodied Merlots are also good matches for grilled fare -- especially the red meat and sausage variety.
If you're grilling something other than beef, the story changes. The subtle smoky flavor of barbecue chicken calls for a light and fruity red wine, like Beaujolais or Tempranillo (the Spanish grape in Rioja). Top that same grilled chicken (or even swordfish) with a tropical fruit salsa, and you're better off with a rich, aromatic Pinot Gris/Grigio or a spicy Riesling or Gerwurztraminer. For grilled salmon, Pinot Noir is a match made in heaven.
Whatever you're tossing on the grill this Fourth of July, there's a wine out there to make it taste even better.
Kenwood 1999 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($16) : This Zin has spicy black cherry/berry flavors and a nice balance between fruit and tannins. Throw some sweet Italian sausages on the grill (or portabella mushrooms, if you're the veggie type) and enjoy.
Coppola 2000 Blue Label Merlot ($17) : With a little Syrah mixed in for complexity, this wine has plum, raspberry and blackberry flavors. Serve it up with some grilled chicken sausages or juicy burgers.
Valley of the Moon 1999 Syrah ($17) : This one's got a nice berry smell and a spicy mix of cherry and black pepper flavors. It's a nice match for grilled sausages, burgers and other red meats.
Ca' del Solo 1999 Sangiovese "Il Fiasco" ($15) : Light bodied and easy drinking with tasty cherry, raspberry and blackberry flavors. Though it's too subtle for big ol' steaks, it's a good match for grilled chicken and mild sausages.
Perry Creek 2000 ZinMan Zinfandel ($12) : This balanced wine from California's Sierra Foothills has a slightly veggie smell at first, which gives way to spicy raspberry and cherry flavors. It's tasty with barbecued red meats.
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling ($10) : Aromatic, with scents of pineapple and flowers and zippy-on-the-tongue qualities that make your mouth feel alive. Extremely quaffable and great with anything spicy. Cheap, too.
Carmen 2001 Chardonnay ($8) : While I generally wouldn't recommend Chardonnay with barbecue fare, this one from Chile is made in a refreshing, non-oaky style and has lots of yummy tropical fruit flavors (think pineapple). It's great match for grilled chicken sausages, especially the chicken-apple variety. And it's a great bargain!
Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail email@example.com.