The season of flame food is upon us, of grilled red meat (for carnivores) and meaty reds (for oeno-vores). My backyard thankfully is surrounded by a multicultural melange of summer fragrances. This year I vow to beg the Vietnamese-Canadian family behind the big fence for an invitation to pole vault onto their patio when they inevitably grill another irresistible soy-and-ginger-marinated duck for Canada Day.
Have you cooked outdoors yet this season? I'm what you might call between barbecues. My propane-fuelled dud is on its last legs following a dangerous side-burner meltdown last fall. So, I recently began browsing for a new model, resolving to switch to natural gas. It has not been a smooth transition.
When I arrived at one of those home-improvement warehouses, I was reminded that barbecues don't run on gas (or briquettes) so much as on testosterone. Let's just say I had a feud with the sales guy, the one wearing the "Ask Me About BBQs" sign, that grew more heated than a 40,000-BTU Master Forge.
My sin was to insist I would never again buy a famous American brand he was enthusiastically endorsing. "Why not?" Well, I said, I already own one (the propane dud) and believe it to be the worst-designed appliance since the motion-sensor faucet. I recounted how I was badly burned soon after taking delivery because the amateurs who designed the thing located the propane-tank bay in such a way that the tank's shut-off valve comes to rest literally seven centimetres below the glowing-hot burner area – not enough clearance for a large hand. "Why didn't you shut off the burner controls first and wait for the thing to cool down before reaching down to shut off the tank?" he asked, staring with an expression that added, "you bonehead."
I responded by advising him, rather brusquely, to consult reputable sources on the topic of propane-gas safety before chastising knowledgeable customers like me, referring him specifically to the barbecue-operating instructions on both the Government of Canada and the Toronto Fire Services websites. "You never turn off the propane flow at the burner controls," I said, "because that traps pressurized, explosive gas in the flimsy rubber hoses." That's also when I swatted him (accidentally, I swear) in the chest with the outstretched tip of my tape measure as I pantomimed my propane-safety instructions. (I had neglected to retract the tape after sizing up a fine, Canadian-made Broil King.)
And that was the more civil part of the exchange, which lasted until I bailed to the relative tranquility of the flooring department.
Guys and grills, eh? I suppose the two of us could have been arguing over wine. Men, in my experience, are more prone than women to ridiculous chest-beating over fermented grapes. And I'm bracing myself for challenges from male quarters regarding the barbecue-appropriate recommendations below. They're not all big, meaty wines, for example, and thus arguably not up to tackling what some might call manly cuts of charred red flesh. Yet I, for one, happen to enjoy the jammy character of a relatively delicate New World pinot noir with such fare. I also like to grill salmon, which is a killer pinot match. Not to mention: Pinot would be glorious with Vietnamese-style grilled duck.
Domaine Les Bugadelles 2014, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $25.95
Get ready for big. Ripe and luscious, this red from France's sunny south shows dense plum, blackberry, dried fig, coffee, licorice and grilled-meat characters, which come together with succulent sweetness. And yet it is ultimately dry and balanced – and organic. Available in Ontario.
D'Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2012, Australia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Deeply coloured and deeply flavoured. Matured entirely in older French- and American-oak barrels, so there's not a lot of vanilla wood influence here, refreshingly. Blueberry-blackberry jam, licorice, black olive and hints of mint and espresso, the latter particularly on the long finish. Good acid zip and gently sticky tannins. Good for juicy steak, sweet ribs or spicy sausages – and most other grilled meats. Available in Ontario at the above price, $27.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $27.48 in Manitoba, $27.95 in Quebec.
Meyer Pinot Noir 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.95
Ripe and jammy, in keeping with the Okanagan's warm 2015 growing season. This entry-level pinot from a top-notch producer comes through with generous fruit suggesting strawberry jam and cherry, supported by an earthy essence and oak-spice firmness. Great for grilled salmon. Available in Ontario and at select VQA and private stores in the west.
Eradus Pinot Noir 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Imagine strawberry sauce spiked by black pepper and clove. A medium-bodied red that would get along well with a filet of grilled salmon or spice-crusted pork tenderloin. Available in Ontario.
Firestone Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20
Ripe to the point of considerable sweetness, but that's not unusual for warm Santa Ynez Valley, just two hours up the coast from Los Angeles. It's full and smooth, with cassis and cherry trading licks with vanilla and chocolate on a creamy texture, supported by lively acidity and gently dusty tannins. California-wise, it's very well priced. Great for steak. Available in Ontario.
Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel 2013, California
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
Zinfandel has become the classic red-wine match for heavily charred or sweetly glazed red meats on the grill. Ravenswood's style, captured in its house motto "No Wimpy Wines," is attractively evident here. Full-bodied and chunky, it's sweet (if technically still dry), with bold plum, blackberry and chocolate flavours framed by fresh acidity and a touch of spice. Available in Ontario at the above price, $22.49 in British Columbia (on sale for $19.99 until July 1).
Luca Bosio Egidio Barbera d'Alba 2014, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
A kinder, gentler style of barbera, with firm but not overbearing acidity. Medium-full and ripe. Sweet dark fruit in the middle and an attractive forest-floor quality. Gently sticky tannins provide structure. Ideal for grilled sausages. Available in Ontario.
M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Côtes de Roussillon Villages 2015, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
Grenache, syrah and carignan matured in concrete and stainless. Chunky and concentrated for the price. The fruit is ripe but the bigger attraction is in the savoury elements – black pepper, licorice and herbs. Serve it with big-meat fare. Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.79 in British Columbia, $15.55 in Quebec, $17.99 in Nova Scotia, $20.26 in Newfoundland (on sale for $17.96), $18.09 in Prince Edward Island.
Cellar Hand Punch Down Red 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $24.90
An entry-level wine from esteemed Black Hills in the Okanagan. Made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and intended for early drinking. Assertively fruity, with intense berry-like character, punchy spice and acidity and hints of mint and charred bell pepper. Grilled red meats are in order. Available direct through www.blackhillswinery.com.