I love barbecue. But it wasn’t until moving to New York that I learned, because of the city’s current and unstoppable traditional barbecue restaurant movement, that barbecue is not just a synonym for a backyard grill. I’m of course referring to the slow-smoked meats, sauces and way of life ubiquitous throughout our southern and certain midwestern states.
Many are to thank for the invasion of proper and delicious modern barbecue joints (as they’re known) throughout New York City’s boroughs. Among them is the restaurateur and native St. Louis-an Danny Meyer, who opened his Blue Smoke in 2002. It was also Meyer who first penned the question in his book Setting The Table: “Whoever wrote the rule that we can’t drink fine wine with traditional barbecue?”
Nothing should be easier than selecting what to drink with barbecue, right? Light beer, bourbon drinks, iced tea … that’s been the popular approach. And there’s always wine around for those who don’t drink beer or spirits. But that leads us — us as in savvy American wine drinkers who enjoy perfection in the sport of pairings — to ask which wines will best pair to enhance barbecue?
For the sake of The Cork Report’s focus, let’s drink North American. Now, let’s narrow the focus even further to Alsace varieties. While in Alsace this past year, I came to the realization that Alsace cuisine is strikingly similar to barbecue. With its myriad of wine pubs and their slow-cooked and smoked hams, sausages; endless potato sides with Muenster cheese, bacon lardons; I found myself dehydrated halfway through a meal in the best of ways — the salty, savory dishes kept me reaching for my glass of Riesling, crémant (champagne-style sparkling wine), Pinot Noir … the regional Alsace wines with their naturally refreshing structure did their job: they quenched thirst.
In homage of my linking of Alsace cuisine and the vibrant community of barbecue restaurants in New York, I asked Master Sommelier and Chef — as well as barbecue specialist — Christopher Bates to consult on styles of Alsace-variety wines in New York state from the Finger Lakes, where he lives and works, to be paired with a few classic barbecue dishes. To further expand our choices I selected wines from my home state of Michigan, the other northeast American wine producing state heavily planted with Alsace grapes. Because what better to pair with a uniquely American cuisine than our own states’ wines?
Joining me for the pairing trial was Grant Gardner, a sommelier and assistant general manager for Meyer’s flagship Blue Smoke Flatiron, and Mike Faircloth, a southern expat, and owner of the shop Vinyl Wines on Manhattan’s upper east side. This was our approach:
- Blue Smoke Flatiron provided the barbecue, which included pulled pork, beef ribs, baby back ribs, brisket, smoked chicken wings, sauces, and two traditional side dishes of macaroni and cheese, and collard greens.
- Our chosen wines had to be produced from primary and secondary grapes associated with Alsace, from the northwestern Michigan AVAs or New York’s Finger Lakes and included Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which was blending in our sparkling representative
- The list of above grapes does not complete Alsace’s wine-grape canon but represents what we were able to timely source.
“Our bubbles could work great with chicken or pork,” Bates told me.
We selected the 2013 Cuvée Brut from Hermann J. Wiemer, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their three estate vineyards, made in the Champagne method. Showing dry, minerally rich bubbles with a green olive savoriness, the people behind Wiemer have bet on upping their sparkling wine game, now choosing to dedicate all their pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine instead of producing still, red pinot noir. This was an obvious favorite of our trio and a nice value at $29.99. The sparkling wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank, Lamoureux Landing, and Ravines in the Finger Lakes, as well as those from L. Mawby on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, would be worthy alternatives.
“And of course, there’s Riesling,” Bates further wrote.
It’s hard to have a conversation on Finger Lakes or Michigan wines without talking Riesling. Our two additional wines representing the Finger Lakes were Rieslings, one also from Wiemer, their 2016 dry riesling; the other a 2014, also dry, from Ravines. We chose these largely because they’re widely available (both have national distribution), and have shown consistent quality with every vintage. “The Ravines with the smoked chicken wings — sign me up,” said Faircloth. He also figured out a nifty menu hack — adding the Alabama-style white sauce (basically mayonnaise, vinegar, and black pepper) that accompanies the wings, to the collard greens. The Riesling from Wiemer was the more giving of our two from the Finger Lakes, but almost unfair to compare to the tight 2014 Ravines — a slow burner from a very even growing season — when compared to the hot, drought-kissed 2016 Wiemer.
Our remaining wines all ended up being from Michigan, including a 2016 dry riesling from Mari Vineyards. Mari is an exciting winery to watch as this is winemaker Sean O’Keefe’s first full-time gig since leaving his family’s winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, where he received international critical praise for his Rieslings. Often times over the years I’ve found the Michigan rieslings structurally to be different from those of the Finger Lakes, in that their acid intensity can be softer (perhaps the result of sandy soils warming the air, causing those softer acids); although, this one was tongue stinging, bone dry, with age-worthy texture and weight, a natural refresher with the genre of food. At this time Mari Vineyards can ship to California, Florida, Minnesota, New York, the District of Columbia, and will no doubt have wider wholesale distribution as their inventory grows.
“For brisket and beef ribs, I’m thinking Gewurztraminer,” Bates advises.
Always a head scratcher amongst wine drinkers, Gewurztraminer is like a work of contemporary orchestral music that requires an explanation from the conductor while the audience unanimously thinks, “so it’s going to be one of those pieces.” I’ve come to adore Gewurztraminer as a wine to pair with many dishes, but my experience in restaurants proves that most drinkers do not share my enthusiasm, as I sweat like the poor orchestra conductor making my table-side pitch. The right amount of bottle age can be paramount (in general we’re still drinking wines too young in the U.S.).
The 2011 Dry Gewurztraminer from Left Foot Charley (currently the only Michigan winery with distribution in New York) has a softened floral, tropical aromatic intensity — often the traits drinkers dislike — but is structurally sturdy with balanced tannin and did, in fact, taste excellent with the brisket and its side of pickles and jalapeno peppers. Our second Gewurztraminer on the table was a 2016, another from Mari Vineyards. While acidity in Gewurztraminer is typically moderate, it makes up for it with an extra bit of tannin compared to most white wines (Gewurztraminer is a pink-skinned grape), as is present in the Mari example, which is dry and minerally intense, and that tannin is nicely complemented by the juicy brisket. Mike and Grant were not as convinced as I was, and I love to disagree with Bates.
Our remaining two whites were also from Michigan: a 2016 Pinot Gris and a Pinot Blanc of the same vintage, both from winemaker Lee Lutes, of Black Star Farms. Black Star Farms is a winery that did at one time have New York distribution, and I hope will again soon. Lutes has a story worth knowing — one that took him throughout the world of wine from a young age beginning as a waiter in Michigan, then sommelier in the Caribbean, followed by sales and management positions in New York for importer Neal Rosenthal and Danny Meyer’s original Union Square Cafe when Mr. Meyer was still working the floor. After making wine with friend and Union Square Cafe co-manager Paul Bolles-Beaven on Long Island, Lutes moved with his now-wife to Italy, where he spent time as an assistant winemaker in Piedmont, before finally returning to Michigan.
I found his 2016 Pinot Gris to be still quite young and tight at the moment, but the Pinot Blanc was an excellent match already, with bright acidity, an attractive weight promising an elegant alternative for white burgundy drinkers, and a dry and refreshing structure all around.
Our only red wine in the tasting was a 2013 Pinot Noir (the only red grape of Alsace) also from Black Star Farms. Immediately upon opening, I thought the wine showed too much oak but was structurally a very well made wine that would please many drinkers. But when I came back to the wine the next day, that presence of oak had blown off and the wine showed beautifully, with smoke, red fruit, and a sturdy skeleton that leads me to believe this wine will be good for at least another decade. (Lute’s wines are known in Michigan to have that kind of aging potential.) I’d recommend giving this particular 2013 pinot noir a good decant before drinking.
I would have loved to have been able to source some of the Muscats and Auxerrois (both Alsace grapes, the former of grand cru nobility, the latter often a neutral blending grape) that exist throughout the Finger Lakes and Michigan. The time is now for proper Alsace Muscat as well as solid new world examples to merit at least its 15 minutes from the influencers. In Alsace, its charming, floral aromatics and mineral-driven palate keep it on the table daily as both an aperitif and food wine but its future elsewhere is uncertain. Maybe Muscat cannot usefully present itself as a look-at-me grape the way the celebrity sommelier ecosystem has demanded of Riesling and Cheninn Blanc. Still, my white wine of the year was a 2016 Muscat made by Michael Cruse, whose wines expertly exemplify the zeitgeist of modern California.
“I think you’re onto something, Paul,” Gardner said in reference to our conscious effort to try and connect a salty, fatty, delicious American cuisine geographically to a corner pocket of cool climate, northeastern American viticulture. It’s important to keep in mind that we’ve only scratched the surface as far as far as what may be harmonious wine and barbecue pairings since we, for the sake of an exercise, limited our choices to Alsace varieties. Certainly, Gamays and Cabernet Francs from our northeast would work as well, rosés too, and it doesn’t stop there. But the Alsace approach works as a reference to what will pair best with heavy, smoked proteins: light, high acid, refreshing wines. After all, it may be more important for you to worry about that fat cap around the brisket you’re smoking, while letting someone else worry about the beverages.
That’s why you invited us.
Hermann J. Wiemer Finger Lakes Cuvée Brut 2013 ($29.99)
Dry, minerally rich bubbles with a green olive savoriness.
Ravines Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2014 ($18.99)
Some aromas of reduction linger but in a mature place and time will still benefit this dry, almost medicinally rocky flavored riesling.
Hermann J. Wiemer Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2016 ($19.50)
Drinking deliciously already, with 0.9% residual sugar.
Mari Vineyards Old Mission Peninsula Dry Riesling 2016 ($28)
Aromas of green apple, cinnamon; with a caramel, frozen water flavor and texture on a palate of teethy grip and length.
Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula Gewurztraminer 2011 ($20)
Austere and dry as can be, with a pleasant juxtaposition of lightness and dominating gewurztraminer flavors.
Mari Vineyards Old Mission Peninsula Gewurztraminer 2016 ($26)
Very subtle notes of tropical fruits but dry on the palate with some definite phenolic bitterness adding balance and complexity.
Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Gris 2016 ($13)
Showing it’s youth at the moment, but expect maturity in a year or two.
Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Blanc 2016 ($22.50)
Could easily be confused for very fine entry-level white Burgundy, with an excellent structure of firm acidity and texture.
Black Star Farms “Arcturos” Michigan Pinot Noir 2013 ($25.00)
Blended from five different vineyards throughout Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas; toasty red berry and oak dominated flavors emerge to smoky, meaty, and more mineral nuances after time and air exposure. A steal at $25.00 and should drink well for at least another decade.