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Winning wines to dazzle at Dad’s barbecue

Doing some Father’s Day grilling? It’s time to try something other than good ol’ Cabernets. Jon Bonné has some suggestions.

Fathers have a seemingly genetic urge to fire up the barbecue. Given the choice, Dad would more than likely relish the chance to spend his special afternoon out at the grill, cooking over an open fire.

You might foolishly try and deny him this simple pleasure during much of the year (“You must be kidding, dear, it’s snowing”) but come Father’s Day — and for the rest of the summer — you do so at your own peril.

With hunks of seared meat, of course, come ripe, robust red wines. In most households, that means Cabernet sauvignon, and with good reason. Even ho-hum Cabs offer big, decent fruit flavors and solid tannins, two things essential to punching up a meal off the grill.

But a life spent drinking only Cab can be downright boring, and besides, we all know Cab is a good match.  So why not hunt down some less obvious choices?

I recently fired up my trusty Weber and convened a panel to taste other possibilities, everything from cru Beaujolais (“named” Beaujolais such as Brouilly and Fleurie) to Napa sangiovese. Our sauce-smeared findings:

Spanish garnacha
We were dazzled by two wines from the Calatayud region in north-central Spain, both made from the garnacha grape (Spanish for grenache).

While grenache too often ends up tasting flabby and blah, like a bowl of mushed fruit, both wines had great structure and character.

The Tres Ojos 2003 Old Vines garnacha (Kysela Pere et Fils, $9) offered mouth-filling fruit with a bright core. It’s a big wine (14.5 percent alcohol) and the tannins are robust, but it’s got perfect touches of sweetness and heat to tame grilled meat.

By contrast, the Niño Jesus 2001 Estecillo Legado Viñas Viejas (Millésime, $11) was more delicate and aromatic, if still plenty brawny, with a peppery backbone.

Calatayud isn’t nearly so well known as Priorat or even La Mancha. But with wines like these, it’s sure to make a strong bid as the next destination for red wine bargains.

Ever-versatile barbera, native to Italy’s Piedmont region, seemed like it might be too fragile for the grill. Not true at all.

Barbera comes in a wide array of styles, some more focused on fruit, some more on earthy notes. Both can be irresistible for an outdoor meal, and the nice part is that most barberas aren’t so heavy that they weigh down your palate. 

Some of the tasters gathered around our grill were partial to the Marchesi di Barolo 2003 barbera d’Alba Ruvei (Palm Bay Imports, $13), which manages to be juicy (“chewy,” one taster said) without losing a nice loamy hint at the end that matched not only meat but grilled veggies too. This popular winery makes several barberas, all of them consistently good.

Barbera isn’t frequently planted in the United States, but several people were happily surprised by a northern California newcomer.  Though the Shannnon Ridge 2003 Lake County barbera ($19) proves itself a far heftier wine than the Italian version, its deep plum and dark cherry notes are matched by a perfumed nose and a hint of warm oak — all of which complement food off the grill. “The best barbera I’ve ever had, domestically,” said one taster.

Traditionally, this should be a perfect barbecue match. It certainly can be, but too many zins — including some we tried — offer nothing more than a fruit avalanche. Choose carefully.

Our best results came from some familiar names. Rosenblum Cellars 2003 Continente Vineyard ($16), made with grapes off decades-old vines in the unheralded San Fransisco Bay appellation, was a standout. A massive wine (“Big enough to stand up to boudin,” said one Cajun-loving taster; other notes are too saucy to include here), it’s packed full of plum and licorice — complex and spicy without being over the top.  Rosenblum’s non-vintage Vintners Cuvee XXVII ($9) is lighter and tangier, but remains as consistent and reliable as ever. Both taste like they were built for barbecue.

The Dry Creek Vineyard 2002 Heritage zinfandel ($13) doesn’t pack quite the fruity wallop — and it wasn’t for everyone (“No!” wrote one taster). But it has elegant scents of flowers and brown spices, and it plays well with food.

Syrah, shiraz and the like
The children of the Rhône should be gimmes for grilled food, but our results were mixed.

Though I personally had high hopes for blends, many clashed with the grilled brisket I served. There was one strong bid for the Perrin Réserve 2003 Côtes du Rhône (Vineyard Brands, $10), which was praised as “mouthfilling” and a great value.

As for syrah, a bigger, jammier domestic style seems best tailored to the grill.  The Vina Robles 2001 Estate syrah ($16) from Paso Robles offered lush dark cherry and cassis, with a graceful body and slightly tannic finish that warmed to food. More obscure, but thoroughly luscious, was the Rulo 2003 syrah ($17) from Walla Walla, Wash.

Other options
The ripasso method of making wine from the Verona region of Italy — essentially, vinifying grapes atop the crushed almost-raisined remnants of corvina grapes used to make Amarone — proved a great match for the grill. Basically, they’re fortified versions of Valpolicella.

The dried fruit and smoky notes in a good ripasso marches in step with the taste of barbecue sauce over an open flame. One well-known contender, the Masi 2001 Campofiorin (Remy Amerique, $15), was concentrated but bright, with a moderate body and soft, glossy finish.

Some people find petite sirah (only vaguely related to syrah) too harsh, but the pronounced dark berry notes and hefty tannins make for a happy pairing with grill-fired meat. The Concannon 2003 Central Coast petite sirah ($12) is affordable and balanced, with a bit of warm oak and a chewy finish.

It’s a big enough wine to make Dad feel appreciated, but not so big that he’ll head straight for a nap in the hammock.