Sweet Wines and Summer Barbecue

Paul Blow

As a bulwark against the summer sun, much of what I like to drink is bracing, dry, even bitter. Typical summer drinks for me include Campari, crisp Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, and chilled dry rosé. But recently I was at a cookout that took me about as far from that as you can go. The food was traditional barbecue, but all the wines were sparkling and sweet.

I’d arrived looking forward to popping an ice-cold Sierra Nevada and instead found ice chests filled with semiesoteric sparklers like Bugey Cerdon, Moscato d’Asti, Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Aqui, and sparkling Shiraz. The barbecue was thrown by a friend with a previously undisclosed sweet tooth and outlandish tastes. I asked her if these wines were only meant to go with dessert, and she just shook her head and said, no, “that’s what we’re drinking today.” She added that no one ever takes these wines seriously and that she was out to prove a point.

I was wary. But I shrugged and grabbed a glass. With a grilled fish taco stuffed with a crunchy slaw and slathered in spicy mango salsa, I sipped 2009 Moscato d’Asti from La Caudrina, a purely delightful wine. The gentle bubbles were a surprisingly great counterpart to the chewy slaw, and the peachy sugar in the wine tamed the fruity heat of the salsa. I’ve typically only drunk Moscatos like this with dessert, but I was happy to see that they make a lovely apéritif and can even hold their own with food.

I stayed with the Moscato until the meat was coming off the grill: burgers, sausages, and ribs. Then I dived into a few of the reds. Lambrusco isn’t particularly sweet, but it is often noticeably off-dry. The Lambrusco from Ca Berti frothed purplishly as I poured it into my glass. Lambrusco is the ancient grape that covers the hillsides in the great Italian food region of Emilia-Romagna. I loved the perfumed nose of crushed cherries and licorice, and the wine finished long and concentrated on my palate. Superb on its own, Lambrusco is also magical with meat. The combination of bubbles, tannin, acidity, and red-wine flavor may seem strange—and it is—but Lambrusco seems to embrace the texture and flavor of almost any meat, be it salami or something hot off the grill like these ribs with their crusty, spicy-sweet char.

I finished my meal with a couple of salads and some pink wine. One of the salads had avocado and oranges in a tangy mayo-based dressing tossed with butter lettuce. With that I drank the delicate Bugey Cerdon from Bernard Rondeau. The wine has a gorgeous, rosy hue and recalls gentle red fruits like strawberries and raspberries. Made from the Gamay grape in eastern-central France, this Bugey is not heavily carbonated and is pronouncedly sweet, but with sufficient acidity to keep it from becoming syrupy. And it’s absolutely irresistible. I stayed with it through the salad (which it accompanied pretty well) and into the dessert of homemade vanilla ice cream and berries tossed with mint and sugar, with which the wine went gorgeously.

Not every wine was great; there had been some misses, too. Some of the off-dry Champagnes (called demi-sec and sec) were simply cloying and mushy. If a sparkling wine’s going to be sweet, it might as well go for it—halfway just doesn’t cut it. The sparkling Shiraz, something I can normally take in small doses, was strange: very sweet, but also very gamy. On the other hand, most of the wines I drank were fairly low in alcohol, between 8 and 12 percent, so I wasn’t stumbling as I headed home.

As I was about to leave, my friend asked me how I had liked the wines. I told her that she’d made a good point: Sweet and sparkling can make for lovely sipping on a hot afternoon and can pair exceptionally well with savory food. But I also confessed that I was leaving to go find something tart and dry—a beer, a coffee, a lemon to suck on. Sweet is indeed charming, but at the end of the day, it’s good to be dry.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.