Note: This is my latest newspaper column. It appears in 11 Indiana newspapers. All past columns can be seen at Grape Sense, the link appears in the right hand column.

If you love summer grilling and struggle with a good wine pairing you’re not alone. Too many people fall back to the classic Cabernet Sauvignon or maybe Merlot when there’s beef on the barbeque.

I love a powerful Cabernet with a charred piece of beef tenderloin anytime of the year but many palates aren’t accustomed to the tannins and dryness of a big Cab. Perhaps you’re trying something new on the grill or just want something different.

There are lots of options and it’s fun to pair a familiar food like steak to a new wine. I think that’s a great way to find something you’ll really like.

Argentina is the great beef-producing country and if you have a steak there you’ll be served Malbec. I think Malbecs are a logical match for about any grilled steak. Malbec is almost always lower in alcohol than Cabernet too. The Malbec is going to be smoother, probably less tannic, and a great match for most beef.

How about thinking outside the box with tonight’s steak? If dinner was going to be a red-sauce pasta dish you’d probably reach for an Italian Chianti. If you’re putting a red barbeque sauce on beef ribs why not pair it with the Italian classic wine?

If you like to really coat your grilled beef with cracked black pepper and make a spicy steak, then a peppery California Zinfandel makes a lot of sense with its big fruit forward characteristics and spicy finish. Another alternative for those who shy away from big wines would be a jammy Australian Shiraz.

If the steak flavor is big, try an earthy Cotes du Rhone wine from France. If it’s a special occasion and your budget allows, go all out and serve an earthy but bigger Chateanuneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone. CdP wines were all the rage a few years ago but they’re not cheap. Entry point for a good one will start in the $35 range.

But there are lots of great Cotes du Rhone wines at reasonable prices. My top wine of 2009 was a $12 Patric Lesec Bouquet bottling from the Cotes du Rhone region that would be really good with grilled beef.

If your dinner guests are big Pinot Noir fans, yes Pinot can work with beef, use a Pinot Noir you know. The California Russian River Valley Pinots and some from the Monterrey area tend to be big wines that will hold up.

Traditional Burgundy and Oregon Pinot Noir made in a more delicate style are probably going to be a better pairing for a lighter grilled meat – think lamb!

And if your beef is hamburger don’t think the beverage has to be beer. Frankly, a grilled burger may give you the greatest flexibility to match a great wine. Hamburger and Cabernet will work just fine! A mild Italian Valpolicella would make great sense with a burger. If you want something even lighter, especially if you don’t know your guests’ tastes, try a French Beaujolais or South Africa’s Pinotage.

Howard’s Picks:
Alamos 2007 Seleccion Malbec
– This is one of the best Malbecs I’ve had under $20. It has rich flavor and intensity you just don’t get in most value wines. It’s deep purple with hints of caramel and cherry. You can find it in bigger wine retail outlets for $16-$20.

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