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Apr 4, 2006
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Wine With . . . Baby-Back Ribs

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Mouthwatering wine and food matches don't just come in fancy restaurants, with luxurious dishes like caviar or foie gras.  They also come at home--with all-American fare like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and that down home favorite, ribs.  Tender and succulent, ribs are best eaten with sleeves rolled up and paper napkins piled high, knives and forks an afterthought if a thought at all.  Many folks would reach almost automatically for beer.  We're convinced, though, that wine can enrich any meal.  So we wanted to find out:  What wines go best with ribs? 


These were baby-back ribs, and because it was a cold, late-winter evening, we cooked them in the oven rather than on the grill.  With this technique, we prefer to dust the ribs with a spice rub rather than coating them with sauce.  Our rub recipe varies, depending on what's in the pantry, but we almost always use cayenne pepper, chil powder, cumin, parika, salt, and sugar.  The key is to roast the ribs at a low temperature (250 degrees or so) until the meat is almost literally falling off the bone.


We tried fourteen different wines with our baby-back ribs.  Not surprisingly, the best matches involved red wines, all of which were fairly full-bodied.  Light reds, including a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a cru Beaujolais, couldn't stand up to the spicy rub, while a Chardonnay and Spanish rosé both seemed thin and watery.  The ten robust reds we tried fared better, but there were some clear winners among them.  Wines that tasted of oak fared less well, as did those in which the fruit flavors seemed overtly sweet.  No matter the grape variety or the terroir, the best wines all had an earthy undertone.  Like the ribs, they tasted down home.


When serving wine with ribs, don't be too fancy.  This is messy, finger-licking food, so crystal stemware may not be the best choice.  Wine goes with all sorts of occasions, and the five reds we're recommending will taste just fine in simple glasses, even tumblers.     



Approx. Price



Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma and Napa Counties (California) Merlot "Grand Reserve" 2003                              






Soft and smooth, with a hint of cocoa that underscores the ripe fruit, this Merlot also imparts a suggestion of toasted bread that connects flavorfully with the crusty char on the ribs.






Pedroncelli, Dry Creek Valley (California) Zinfandel "Mother Clone" 2002






This is a plump, friendly Zin--a hi-y'all-make yourselves comfortable kind of wine.  Its earthiness and generous dose of tannin are good foils for the fattiness of the meat, making for a very homey match.



Bodegas Salentein, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2003

(Imported by San Francisco Wine Exchange)







Inky in hue, broad in flavor, and further enhanced by soft, grainy tannins, this Malbec exudes the mouthwatering sweetness of grapes grown in a sunny clime.  Its ripe fruitiness softens the heat of the spice rub and amplifies the overall intricacy of flavors.




Santa Rita, Maipo Valley (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon "Medalla Real" 2002

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)





Gnaw the rich meatiness off the ribs and marvel at how your taste buds cry out for more of this earthy, almost dusty Cabernet!  An appeal herbal quality in the wine meshes lusciously with the cumin, chili powder, and other spices flavoring the meat.


Chateau de Valcombe, Costières de Nîmes (Rhône Valley, France) "Cuvée Prestige" 2004  (Imported by Robert Kacher)







This wine imparts a whiff of something wild and wonderful--the hot, dry underbrush of southern France perhaps.  When its distinctive tangy finish meets up with the piquant ribs, a chain reaction of flavors explodes deliciously across the palate.