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Summer Grilling Essentials
By Robert Whitley
May 6, 2008
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I'm prepping for the grill season and looking at my checklist. Two heavy cooking mitts for that awkward moment when I've foolishly bitten on the proposition that a person can roast a turkey on the Weber, but now I've got to get this fully cooked bird to the table without dripping grease over the hot coals. Grill tools the size of pitchforks for those really thick steaks. And enough wood chips for the smoker to guarantee I show up at the office every Monday morning with my hair still smelling of chicken and ribs.

Don't you just love summer?

Anyway, setting up the grill is the least of my barbecue worries. I'm a wine guy, and I've learned a few things over the years about burgers and Bordeaux.

Rule No. 1, buy a big metal tub and keep it handy while grilling, though not so close to the flame that your ice melts before it's done its job. You can find plenty of fancy 'party tubs' being sold at department stores, but you don't need fancy; you only need a metal tub that won't leak as the ice melts. You'll save money buying one at the hardware store. I prefer metal over plastic purely on aesthetics.

Place your white wines on the bottom and cover with ice. Throw a couple of bottles of red wine on top, leaving them just long enough to cool down on a warm summer day, but not so long they turn cold. Lighter, fruitier red wines will benefit the most, particularly Beaujolais, Barbera and young Spanish reds. Bolder reds should not be served warm, for the tannins and alcohol will be out of balance, so a few minutes on top of the ice will correct that problem.

By its very nature outdoor cooking is casual, and I believe strongly, with a few exceptions, that casual wines are best for the barbecue. This is when I consume copious amounts of rose.

I'm a fan of dry rose from the south of France, especially Tavel, but domestic producers are starting to get the hang of rose and I've been tasting more of those of late. For value, the Big House Pink at $10 makes a wonderful quaffer, and it comes in a convenient screwcap, which is a great thing if it slips down into the water after the ice in the tub has melted. Bonterra's organic 2007 Rose from Mendocino County is another widely distributed domestic rose that's fresh, crisp and dry. And it's eco-friendly.

When I grill out I'm generally cooking for a gaggle of friends, so value wines are important lest the barbecue budget get out of hand. I think I've found the perfect budget white for the occasion, though its origin may surprise. This would be the 2007 Kiwi Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc at $8.

One would assume Kiwi Cuvee is yet another Sauvignon from New Zealand, and that conclusion isn't far off the mark given the flavor characteristics: juicy passionfruit and citrus aromas, a lovely, inviting nose and fresh acidity that carries the length of the palate. But Kiwi Cuvee is produced in the Languedoc region of southwestern France. You could have fooled me!

I do enjoy the crispness and pungency of New Zealand Sauvignons and found two that I loved during the recent San Diego International Wine Competition - Matua Valley 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($12) and Nobilo 2007 Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc ($13), both from the Marlborough region. Located at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island, Marlborough is the epicenter of the cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs that have won over wine lovers throughout the world.

These wines make an exceptional aperitif and can stand up to grilled vegetables and shrimp, but for meatier, more flavorful fish I prefer wines with a bit more weight. Either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir (indeed, I am suggesting a red wine with fish!).

While I've grown attached to many of the wonderful vineyard-designated Chardonnays that have cropped up on the West Coast in recent vintages, I generally stick with more affordable alternatives when grilling, and these wines have the added advantage of being easier to find.

The Kendall-Jackson 2006 Grand Reserve ($21) is a real crowd-pleaser. Made from estate grapes grown throughout California's Central Coast, the Grand Reserve is full-bodied, rich and creamy without losing its freshness. It's a beautiful Chardonnay for the money and one that is sold pretty much everywhere. Raymond, long one of the Napa Valley's most reliable wineries, has a couple of very good Chardonnays that will brighten up your barbecue without busting the budget - its 2006 Reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay ($20) and its 2006 R Collection Monterey Chardonnay ($13).

As for meatier subjects (you know, steaks, chops, ribs and such) I generally prefer red wines that have plenty of fruit. The crossover red, for me, is Pinot Noir, because I can pour it with grilled swordfish and salmon, or with chicken, ribs and juicy, charred red meats. Though price can sometimes be an issue with Pinot Noir, I've found two excellent Pinots that come in at $20 (or less if you are a clever wine shopper and know who prices wines to move).

Both the Diamond Oaks 2006 Carneros Pinot Noir ($20) and the Hahn Estates 2005 Monterey Pinot Noir ($20) were up for Best of Show red at the San Diego wine competition. Given that $50 is the median price for really good California or Oregon Pinots, these Pinots represent exceptional value.

When some of your meat dishes call for bolder, more savory flavors I lean to Rhone-style blends and Syrah.

Hess Collection's 2005 Cuvee 19 Block ($35) from Mount Veeder and Bennett Lane's 2005 Maximus Red Feasting Wine ($35) from the Napa Valley are wonderful blends of Bordeaux and Rhone grapes varieties. This practice of blending Cabernet and/or Merlot with Syrah is a growing trend in the Napa Valley, though it has been done with great success in Australia for a couple of decades.

The combination delivers wines that have power without losing elegance, and supple tannins that make them enjoyable when young. Then again, if it's the power of Cabernet Sauvignon that makes your coals burn hotter, have at the Hess Collection 2005 Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), which is a steal of a Cab from the Napa Valley at the price, or the 2004 Frank Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) from the Napa Valley, a gold-medal winner in San Diego this year.

Finally, if you intend to have a glass of wine or two while grilling, make sure those large grill mitts are made of fire resistant materials.

Bon appetit!

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.