Let me be upfront: I am a die-hard devotee to whole hog Eastern-style North Carolina barbecue.
With that disclaimer out of the way, we can have an honest discussion about how to select wines for pairing with the only two permissible styles of Carolina ‘cue: Eastern and Lexington.
Every North Carolinian should have a good grasp on the differences between these two styles. You can even take our quiz.
In brief, Eastern-style barbecue uses the entire hog, chops it all up together and adds a sauce that combines white or cider vinegar, a dash of sugar, salt, and plenty of crushed black and red pepper. Lexington-style only uses the pork shoulders and the sauce is similar, but contains more sugar as well as the main differentiator: a splash of ketchup.
As I mentioned in my previous pairing guide for wine and fish, your goal should be to match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food so that neither is overwhelming the other.
Pairing wine with North Carolina barbecue can be frustrating and downright unappetizing if you don’t consider how the ingredients are going to interact with the wine.
Regardless of the style, North Carolina barbecue is tender, juicy, and typically has aromas of wood and smoke. Both sauces boast considerable acidity from their primary ingredient: vinegar. These characteristics combine to create an explosion of taste, but they can also easily overwhelm many wines.
Sauces with vinegar as the primary ingredient require wines with high acidity. Additionally, you can take a cue from the traditional barbecue plate beverage companion, sweet tea, and pair sweeter or fruitier wines to tame some of the peppery heat. Eastern N.C. barbecue can pair with white, rosé, or red wines, as long as the wine is bright and fruity.
The addition of ketchup and more sugar in Lexington-style barbecue sauce tames some of the vinegar. This creates a thicker texture that demands a wine with more heft and tannin, in addition to a good bit of fruitiness. A white wine can’t offer the weight and tannin that Lexington-style barbecue requires, so stick with the reds.
Pairing with Eastern-style barbecue:
Click the wine name to see an image of the bottle.
Barbera from the Piedmont of Italy
Cascina Zerbetta – Barbera del Monferrato
Riesling from Germany
Karl Erbes – Ürziger Würzgarten – Riesling Kabinett – Mosel Valley
Muscadine from North Carolina
Adams Vineyard – Papa Johnny’s White Bliss – Willow Spring
Pairing with Lexington-style barbecue:
Syrah from the Northern Rhône Valley in France
Yves Cuilleron – Les Vignes d’à Côté – Syrah
Petite Sirah from California
Michael David – Petite Petit – Lodi
Tempranillo from Spain
Finca Constancia – Tempranillo – Castilla
All of these recommendations are made with the assumption that you’ll be enjoying a plate of barbecue.
Any time you add a soft bun and coleslaw to the barbecue to make a sandwich, the taste profile will be a little different. One of my favorite pairings with a N.C. barbecue sandwich is a rich, dry rosé such as the Capcanes “Mas Donis” rosé from Montsant, Spain. Delicious!
Finally, a good batch of Sangria, full of bright fresh fruit and some sweetness, will go a long way toward cooling your palate and body temperature at your next pig-pickin’. Don’t be afraid to enjoy wine in a less serious way!
Phillip Zucchino, born and raised in North Carolina, has three years of wine production experience throughout France and is the co-owner of TheWineFeed.com, an online wine retailer with a focus on helping consumers identify their personal taste through interactive wine events. Feel free to contact Phillip at firstname.lastname@example.org.