Finally, grill covers are coming off, smokers are being fired up and invitations are going out for the event that’s gone missing far too long—the backyard barbecue. Whether you define that as anything on (any kind of) grill, or you’re a purist, and nothing short of hours of smoke will do, it’s safe to say that cooking outdoors this summer for friends you couldn’t even see last summer is cause for serious celebration. And that calls for special bottles of wine. To ease the pressure on that front, we did extensive empirical research—that is, staged an unapologetically over-the-top cookout involving all the usual favorites, around a table groaning with bottles—to settle on which grapes and producers punch up the food and wine together the most.
Two varieties stood out in the crowded field. With juicy burgers, spicy chicken, and saucy ribs, Zinfandel was the preferred partner. Its sweet-seeming fruit (even when the wine is completely dry) and underlying spiciness make it a terrific foil for the flavors across those grill classics. But for meatier, smokier dishes (this is for all you smoke masters and mistresses out there), Syrah was the slam dunk. With characteristic cured-meat aromas (sometimes even bacon), Syrah has echoes of barbecue built right into it, and its characteristic blue and black fruit, black olive and tobacco notes make savory brisket, smoky pulled pork and spice-rubbed steaks shine.
Here are West Coast Zins and Syrahs that richly deserve an invitation to your backyard this summer.
Frank Family Vineyards 2017 Reserve Zinfandel Chiles Valley, Napa Valley
This reserve from Frank Family reflects the elegant side of Zinfandel. The dark berry and plum aromas that open are set off by mocha, black pepper, and lovely violets. The palate is downright juicy with good acidity, punching up raspberry and warm spice flavors, with tannins that build through a beautiful finish.
Inglenook 2017 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford, Napa Valley
Named for the music publishing company founded by Francis Coppola’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino, this concentrated, aromatic Inglenook Zin comes from a core of vines over 40 years old. A complex nose gives up spiced dark fruit (briars still attached to the berries), with hints of savory herbs and licorice. Juicy strawberry and black cherry flavors are spiked with black pepper and warmer spices, with a touch of citrus lingering as the supple tannin structure unfolds.
Priest Ranch 2019 Zinfandel Napa Valley
At north of 15 percent alcohol, this Zin from Priest Ranch isn’t shy, but it’s tangy and bright with great acidity, just made for a well-balanced barbecue sauce. Aromatic, earthy, and spicy, the nose offers up blackberry laced with black pepper, dark chocolate, and violets. A basket of bright berry flavors includes raspberry and even a little cranberry, plus black cherry on a generous, concentrated palate.
Robert Biale Vineyards 2019 Black Chicken Zinfandel Napa Valley
The latest iteration of the Biale “Black Chicken”—so named because during Prohibition, folks on the ranch knew that if that’s what you asked for, chicken wasn’t what you wanted—is juicy and generous. Dark berry fruit runs from nose through palate, joined by plum and cherry flavors backed by exotic spices, a touch of minerality, and a dusting of cocoa. This is a textural Zin, with supple tannins.
Williams Selyem 2019 Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma County
From a 125-year-old, dry-farmed vineyard comes this intense and concentrated Zin from Sonoma’s cult-favorite Williams Selyem. Fresh aromas of bright berry fruit spiked with white pepper open, with earthy notes underneath. Gorgeous flavors of red plum, boysenberry, and the faint tang of citrus unfold (that last a beautiful foil for any barbecue sauce that’s not too sweet), the sweet-seeming fruit bound by plenty of structure and underlined with minerality.
Avennia 2018 Boushey Vineyard Arnaut Syrah Yakima Valley
This dense and savory Avennia Syrah, from one of Washington’s preeminent vineyards, picks up great textural interest from being unfined and unfiltered. Its complex nose reflects the contradictions good Syrah is capable of—smoke and cured meat balanced against wild blueberries and pretty florals, warm spice against savory herbs. Marked salinity and minerality on the palate continue the contrast against black raspberry and plum.
Denner Vineyards 2018 Dirt Worshipper Central Coast
This irresistible Syrah from Paso Robles’ Denner gets a lot of aromatic mileage out of 1 percent each of co-fermented Roussanne and Viognier. The nose is downright seductive, with florals wrapping around a dark core of blueberries, smoked meats, black olive, espresso, and black pepper. Real hedonism follows in juicy blackberry flavors layered with crushed herbs and anise. This is a very textural wine—supple and long.
Keller Estate 2017 Rôtie Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County
This blend of 93 percent Syrah co-fermented with 7 percent Viognier from Keller takes its cues from the aromatic Syrahs of the Rhône Valley’s Côte-Rôtie. Light on its feet and with lovely floral aromas from the Viognier, the nose still layers under them the earthy cured meat, “garrigue” (warm underbrush notes), and savory black olive that mark a cool-weather Syrah. The palate is juicy and elegant, with blueberry and raspberry flavors wound together with chewy tannins.
Caliza Winery 2018 Reserve Syrah Willow Creek District, Paso Robles
Beautiful black fruit is the calling card for this complex Reserve from Caliza. Dark loam, bacon fat, warm spice, and iron minerality swirl with blueberry and a little tobacco smoke. Dense and hedonistic, the palate carries berries and plums with a little kick of orange zest and fresh herbs, through a lush finish.
Law 2016 Intrepid Adelaida District, Paso Robles
This inky beauty from Law is both dense and expressive. You know a Syrah (100 percent in this case) is a keeper when it opens with bacon and violets. Earthy minerality underlies blackberry, black olive, and tobacco aromas leading to fruit flavors that run from red to black (call it black raspberry in the middle), a gamut of warm spices, chewy but elegant tannins, and a lush, lingering finish.
Mira 2016 Hyde Vineyard Syrah Napa Valley
Named for the Latin root for “miracle,” this Mira Hyde Vineyard Syrah from cool Carneros is marked by fresh acidity and pure transparency, brought up as it was in mostly neutral oak. A dark-fruited and earthy nose is layered with cured meat, black olive, tobacco, and toasted spice. Savoriness notwithstanding, the palate is rich and generous—raspberry, plum, and blueberry coated with a little dark chocolate.
Myriad 2019 Esther Block Las Madres Vineyard Syrah Carneros
This 2019 from Myriad joins a growing number of impressive Syrahs coming out of the cool Carneros region. Fresh-cracked pepper, damp earth, and cured meat aromas announce a savory bent, while the palate perfectly balances that side with sweet fruit. Cherry is layered with black olive, a little leather, and some salinity, carried on an elegant structure.
Saviah Cellars 2018 The Funk Estate Syrah Walla Walla Valley
One of Walla Walla Valley’s most exciting areas for Syrah is The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, on the Oregon side of the border, where “rocks” is an understatement. Enormous pebbles, rolled down streams from the Blue Mountains, blanket many of the vineyards in the AVA, à la the Southern Rhône. Saviah’s winemaker, Richard Funk, pushes that mineral-driven terroir in this estate wine with partial whole-cluster Syrah co-fermented with some whole-cluster Viognier. High-toned floral aromas mingle with tobacco leaf, smoked meat, and black raspberry. The palate is layered and dense, with blackberry and anise balanced by savory black olive and a touch of salinity.