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Art of Living Guide to Picking The Perfect Outdoor Wine

Almost any time is the right time for a barbecue or picnic.

In spring we are itching to get outside after winter’s dreary chill. In summer we celebrate the long bright days by eating outside with friends, sometimes grilling at home, sometimes spreading a blanket at a concert or open air theatre. In autumn, if you’re anything like me, then eking out the last bits of brisk outdoor weather before winter drives us indoors again becomes a bit of a King Canute like obsession.

Whichever season you prefer, eating outdoors is a primal attraction, bringing friends together and reconnecting us with nature.

The right bottle of wine not only enhances the taste of picnic foods, it adds a pinch of European sophistication to outdoor eating. But choose well – I’ve pulled together five guidelines to help your selection. Whether you are packing the hamper yourself or bringing along a picnic addition, make sure you choose a wine that elevates the event.

1. Know Your Soirée

It’s important to know the difference between “picnic” and “barbecue,” and choose your beverage accordingly. To help select drinks, I divide the two events into these general definitions:

  • BBQ: Garden or car-accessible event. At home or at friend’s houses. Spicy and smoky grilled meats along with powerful side dishes. Main dish usually eaten hot.
  • Picnic: Some walking, cycling or paddling required to reach the location. No cooking on site – foods are prepared ahead and eaten cool or at room temperature.

A picnic needs drinks that won’t overpower the food and will travel well. A BBQ can cope with stronger flavours, and since you probably aren’t having to carry the drinks too far you have more options. Beer always works for a BBQ as the hoppy flavours and fizz refresh the taste buds between bites of savoury grilled meat. But there’s something about a glass of wine at a picnic that always feels truly decadent.

Staring down the wine aisle of your local supermarket it may seem a bit daunting, but there are a few suggestions you can keep in mind when planning your menu:

  • White wine - If you’re serving lighter fare, such as fish, chicken, or even a few pork dishes, white wines will pair with them beautifully. Consider a chardonnay for tuna, trout, rockfish, veggie burgers, or even regular hamburgers that will be garnished with mushrooms.
  • Riesling - is one of the most interesting white wines available. Though often sweet and viscous, dry Rieslings can be found from producers in both Germany and America (Washington is known for its excellent Riesling), characterized by a crisp acidity and notes of peach, pear and apricot. Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines a person can drink during the summer months. It’s also important to note that you get what you pay for with Rieslings, so consider spending a bit extra if you’re looking for a supremely dry, drinkable bottle.
  • Sauvignon Blanc - Known as being perhaps the best possible wine for pairing with chicken and most types of seafood, Sauvignon Blanc is often exactly what most people are looking for when attempting to choose the perfect summer white. Acidic, yet soft enough to carry with it creamy notes of lime, herbs and tropical mango, a good bottle of Sauvignon Blanc can become the star of the show on a warm summer evening. Given how popular this grape is, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a strong example of the style without having to spend very much money.
  • Red wine — A classic red wine is always a safe choice for burgers, steak, BBQ ribs, and beef.
  • Pinot Noir — Sensuous and silky, Pinot Noir’s enticing sometimes earthy perfume is practically made to pair with mushrooms. Intensely flavored, complex, with incredible longevity—it’s a wine meant to pair with food and since it’s lighter than heavier Cabernets, Pinot Noir  won’t overshadow your meal.
  • Cabernet — Are you dishing out flavourful brisket? Take a chance on a vibrant Cabernet blend. Fatty meats work best with bold red wines that have high tannin. The tannin is an astringent which works as a palate cleanser to ’scrape’ the fattiness from the inside of our mouth.
  • Syrah/Shiraz — If you’ll be barbecuing ribs, a rich Syrah/Shiraz will bring out the best of the flavours. Shiraz and Tempranillo are wonderful partners, with Shiraz bringing fruit power with a peppery edge, and Tempranillo adding savoury elements and complex tannin structure. The aromas and flavours accent the savoury ribs without overpowering the flavours with too much oak or tannin.
  • Zinfandel — Spicy sausage calls for something just as bold, so you might want to uncork an equally spicy zinfandel to really give your guests something to relish. With its unique taste, deep dark color and sometimes off-the-charts alcohol content—Zinfandels pack a real punch, with fruit-driven aromas and flavors of berries, black pepper, spice and sometimes even with a hint of chocolate or citrus. Add a spicy grilled sausage to the mix and you’ve found “foodie nirvana.”
    • Rosés — Rosés are an excellent choice for most grilled food as they are spirited enough to match with almost any flavour. A lively rosé will go particularly well with pulled pork.

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2. Lower the Alcohol

On your picnic it’s likely to be warm, and guests may have exerted themselves a bit to reach the destination. They’ll be thirsty, but you don’t want anyone to pass out after (or during) the meal. That means bringing along water and also keeping the alcohol levels low for picnic wines.

Wines can range anywhere from about 9% for some sparkling whites and rosés to over 25% for some rich dessert wines. As general guideline, look for tasty options under 12% for day drinking.

Or, you can just add water! Sacre Bleu! That may sound like heresy, but the French actually add water frequently to “proof” their wines down to a lower alcohol level for daytime drinking, or to share with younger drinkers. Slip a few ice cubes into each glass or let your guests add their own water from a tasteful insulated bottle.

3. Forget the Cork

Rather than fiddle with (or risk forgetting!) a corkscrew, go for a screw top. You can also impress your guests with your knowledge of the “Stelvin closure” and how it protects against cork taint.

High-end winemakers are increasingly adopting the screw top. Research shows that the Stelvin works best for younger wines (as they can break down after ten or so years), making them perfect for refreshing picnic bottles.

Of course another advantage of the Stelvin is that the wine bottles can be resealed! Actually, that’s ridiculous. I mean, as if you are going to have any wine left.

4. Rosé, Rosé, Rosé!

I have a weakness for rosés at BBQ’s and picnics because they are the perfect colour, injecting a note of warm floral pink to enhance nature at the table (or blanket). Also there is such a wide variety available.

In this way, rosé is the best of both worlds. It has beautiful fruity and floral aromas and a light profile, like white wines. Rosé wines also have a touch of the structure that comes from red wines, without being “chewy”. Sometimes rosé even has a hint of sweetness.

This is one reason I turn to rosé during the warm summer months. They go perfectly well with a picnic, a day staring out over my toes at the sea, or for a BBQ with friends. The next time the sun is out and you’re looking for a wine that’s refreshing, think pink.

(side note: Jelly Belly Jelly Bean flavours are made from complex mixtures of ketones and esters).

5. Break Out the Bubbly

Nothing says “party” quite like a glass of Champagne. Of course you don’t have to go full French to inject that bubbly spark into your picnic – there are many other refreshing options available.

One of my favourites is Vinho Verde, a Portuguese sparkling wine that is not made from any one particular varietal. The direct translation is “green wine,” and that’s “green” as in “young”. So the wine is fresh, light, and tends to be lower alcohol, only 8-11%. I like the refreshingly gentle crispness

Italian bubblies like Prosecco and Asti tend to be lower alcohol as well, usually under 12.5%, which adds to their daytime-friendly vibe. These drinkable wines are refreshing, in a grown-up soda kind of way. Also, Moscato, which has a touch of sweetness, usually weighs in at only 7% alcohol.

Just a note on refrigeration – on a hot summer day it is important to keep the wine properly chilled. This doesn’t mean to overchill the wine so that it stays cold! It means to hold the wine at the proper temperature for a long period of time. A proper wine cooler that can accommodate small ice packs (not placed directly on the wine). And if you can find a spot with a cool running stream to chill the bottles, then you have yourself a truly classic picnic.

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