What wine to drink with a BBQ

Restaurateur Sven Nielsen has a few favourites when it comes to summer drinks by the barbecue by Anna King Shahab

Sven Nielsen made his way into the hospo industry the way so many do, while doing his OE. But he decided to make a career out of it, clocking up a sommelier diploma, working as a somm in other top restaurants before he went out on his own with Molten Restaurant and Wine Bar, in Auckland’s leafy suburb of Mt Eden. At Molten, the drinks list gets as much planning as the food menu, because, as Sven rightly points out, “Where is most of the money in a restaurant made? On beverages. Yet while a good chef is seen as a necessity, the importance of sommeliers is ignored, which is all wrong.” At Molten, as well as Sven, there’s a second qualified sommelier on deck, Sweden-trained Adam Widahl. So there’s never awkward pauses over drinks recommendations. 

Earlier this year Sven built a grill in the restaurant’s courtyard, so barbecued proteins are an important feature of the menu. We caught up with Sven to ask him what he likes to drink with barbecued foods. 

“For me, barbecuing is a day-long affair; using charcoal it might take me three or four hours to cook but I love the ritual and, of course, that smoky flavour you get. 

“The main thing I think about with any pairing of food and drink is body. You don’t want light, refreshing foods quashed by a heavy wine or beer, and vice-versa. Another big factor is flavour intensity. Flavour can be paired by either contrasting or complementing. 

“One of my golden rules with wine is that grape variety is not the be-all and end-all. A chardonnay from warm California will be very different to a cool-climate one, and loads of other factors come in to play. So I never rule out drinking something without tasting it first. 

“If I’m doing a barbecue, first up I’d serve a nice crisp white wine, pale lager or a pilsner. They’d go well with starters, especially things like ceviche or oysters. 

“Then, once food comes off the grill I’d move on to the classic smoke and oak marriages. Big, oaky chardonnays and tannic reds. An oaky, buttery chardonnay is great with rich, fatty salmon off the grill or out of a smoker. I like a nice IPA with steak; there can be a nice briny taste in some IPAs which I just love with a well-seasoned steak. Or a bitter beer with coffee tones will marry well with smoky, grilled meat. A body and flavour match I really love is a really big bitter with rich, really slow-cooked meat; it’s just wonderful. 

“Spice is a big factor too. I would usually pick a beverage with some residual sugar which tends to cool things down on the tongue, and freshness is also a good counterpoint. So, with spicy food I’d go for a sweeter riesling, perhaps, or even a cider with sweetness. I avoid tannic wines with spice, which can lead to disaster – they can become overbearingly puckering and you can waste precious good wine this way!

“If I’m cooking up Cumberland pork sausages, which I quite like, I find an apple cider is a natural fit. And then there’s the fact you’ve got salads alongside your barbecued proteins. Here’s where I go with the rule that acidic food needs a high-acid beverage. I love a crisp riesling with salad, or a sour beer: it’s fermented without the addition of yeast, with natural bacteria instead, which is what gives it that tartness. You either love or hate sour beer, and I love it. 

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