Time was when an Irish barbecue meant a few burnt sausages and burgers for the kids and, if you were lucky, a steak for the adults.
Robust charred red meat demanded a big, rich red wine to wash it down; a full-bodied Australian Shiraz or a muscular Malbec from Argentina were the first choice in most cases. But times have changed. Many of us now prefer lighter less powerful wines that won’t knock you out after just one glass. And our barbecues have become a lot more sophisticated, and now include all kinds of chicken, fish, shellfish and vegetables.
The idea of suggesting one wine to cover all eventualities simply no longer works. Having said that, if you are serving beef with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, something big and new worldy with its ripe fruit is still the best option. Otherwise, with plainly grilled red and white meats, lighter wines with good acidity and/or tannin, such as a Chianti, a Nebbiolo or a Malbec from south-west France won’t leave you woolly-headed halfway through the afternoon or evening.
However, you don’t have to restrict yourself to red wines. A glass of chilled white wine is always welcome in the sun and can go very well with barbecued food. If your dish has a herby or spicy marinade, go for a richer white: an oaky Chardonnay or a textured Viognier would be ideal with full-flavoured smoke-tinged chicken or fish.
If you plan on serving plainly grilled fish or shellfish, then a lighter white is more appropriate.
A Soave from Italy, Picpoul de Pinet from the Langudoc, Muscadet, Spanish Albariño, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Australian Semillon or, possibly best of all, an Assyrtiko from Greece, would be perfect.
Rosé, essence of summer, also goes really well with most barbecued white meats and fish, and has the added benefit of matching up nicely to spicy flavours, too.
If, as often happens, you are serving a variety of different foods, you may need to find one or maybe two wines to cover everything. For red wines I would recommend something medium-bodied with plenty of juicy fruit. This is certainly not the time to open up your finest wines; all of those complex flavours will be swamped by more robust food. But it doesn’t mean going straight to the bargain basement in your local supermarket either.
Even with barbecues, you will notice the difference between budget and plain nasty. I tend to look for good value softer reds from the Languedoc or Spain to cover all meat and most vegetarian dishes, and a richer white wine from the southern Rhône valley for those who prefer white wine. However, possibly the best one-size-fits-all option is Pinot Noir.
Given half an hour in the fridge on a hot day, Pinot offers a great combination of bright fruits and refreshing acidity that will happily go with fish, chicken and more substantial meats.
There is, of course, one other drink that goes perfectly with barbecues, and that is beer. Lighter in alcohol and these days packing in a lot more flavour, you should offer at least one, preferably two,of our local craft beers with your barbecue.
A lighter pale ale or lager would be perfect for that period (hopefully not too long) when you are standing around the barbecue waiting for the food to cook, and will also go very nicely with fish and chicken. You could then offer a more powerful red ale or stout to go with red meats or pork.
For those of you that hold regular barbecues with large groups of family and friends, I include a few relatively inexpensive reds that should go down nicely with any kind of barbecued meats. The Clotworthy Dobbin from the Whitewater Brewery in Northern Ireland will do likewise.
All should be widely available no matter where you are in the country. However, if you have a good local off-licence, they should certainly be able to offer an interesting range of Irish craft beers and a few well-chosen wines as well.
Lastly, do not forget those who are not drinking alcohol. A large jug of water filled with plenty of ice, cucumber, fresh mint, slices of lemon, lime or orange and maybe even a few handfuls of raspberries or strawberries tastes so much better than commercial sweet fizzy drinks.
Feel free to experiment with different fruits and herbs. I recently tried some delicious watermelon and basil flavoured water.