Grilling season lasts all year at my house. Nevertheless, this weekend marks the unofficial opening of grilling season. A lot of grillers I know like to crack open a beer while they're doing the actual cooking. But when it's time to sit down to dinner, wine is on the table.

I'm not big on wine-pairing "rules," but there are a few things to consider when you're serving wine with grilled food. The method of cooking gives the food a smokiness that can be pretty aggressive, so you want a bold, flavorful wine. This isn't really the time for a delicate wine, or one that's been carefully aged for years. The nuances of such wines are likely to get lost. Go for something with big fruit and maybe some spiciness.

The next, most obvious, thing to consider is what's on the menu. Lighter fish or shellfish usually pair best with a white wine -- my choice here would generally be sauvignon blanc, like the fragrant, citrusy 2010 Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($16) or, from Chile, the 2011 Casa Silva Reserva Sauvignon Blanc ($12), with its pink grapefruit and hint of mineral. For something a little different, try the 2011 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier ($14), which is a little spritzy, with lemon, tangerine and stone fruit flavors, a floral note and just a hint of sweetness.


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Heavier fish (think salmon or tuna) and poultry are good with a lighter red, such as pinot noir, grenache or a slightly chilled Beaujolais. A couple of well-priced pinots are the 2010 La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir ($20), a smooth, supple wine with dark raspberry fruit and hard spices, and the 2010 Kenwood Pinot Noir ($16), a more structured wine with juicy cherry and spice notes.

Red meat calls for a bolder red. But rather than cabernet sauvignon and merlot, I like syrah, petite sirah and more restrained versions of zinfandel. The 2009 Morgan Monterey Syrah ($20) is a perfect complement to grilled meat: It's peppery and spicy, with blackberry fruit and a smoky/meaty note.

The 2009 Bogle Petite Sirah ($11) is a perennial bargain, with its dark, dense fruit, hard spices and firm tannins. A couple of zinfandels that aren't too over-the-top are the 2009 Folie a Deux Zinfandel ($18) from Dry Creek Valley, with its brambly olallieberry fruit and notes of tobacco and spice, and the more tannic 2010 Artezin Zinfandel ($18) from Mendocino County, which offers spicy berry, accented by a note of tobacco. The 2010 Beckmen Vineyards Cuvee le Bec ($18), a Rhone-style blend with bright strawberry and raspberry fruit and firm structure, is elegant enough for poultry but will stand up to all but the heaviest meats.

We also grill a lot of vegetables. If they're a side dish, let the main course dictate your wine choice. But if veggies are in a starring role, sauvignon blanc is often a good choice. A notable exception is mushrooms: If you're substituting portobellos for beef in a burger, a natural match is pinot noir.

Marinades probably won't affect your wine choice very much. Sauces might, especially if you're planning to serve something sweet or very spicy. If you want your dish to be wine-friendly, it's best to avoid extremes, although spicy food can be tempered somewhat by a slightly sweet wine, such as riesling.

When you're picking a wine, consider factors beyond what foods are being served. Is the weather uncomfortably hot, or is there a cool breeze or even a little fog? While the sweet fruit and spice of a zinfandel might pair nicely with grilled food on a pleasant evening, you probably don't want 15-plus-percent alcohol on a scorching afternoon.

In hot weather, don't be afraid to chill your red wines just a bit. When reds are served too warm, their alcohol and tannins are accentuated. I like to use one of those gel-filled sleeves that you keep in the freezer. Pop it on the bottle for 10 minutes to bring the temperature down.

Finally, when you're grilling, you don't have to spend a fortune for the wines. That's why most of my suggestions cost $20 or less. This is casual dining, after all.

Contact Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

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More Sips for the 'Cue

A couple of more sauvignon blancs worth considering with that barbecued fare are the 2011 Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc ($12), which is fresh and fragrant, with pungent citrus and honeydew melon, and the 2011 Long Meadow Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($20), with its flavors of pink grapefruit and tomato stem.
It's hard to find a good, inexpensive pinot noir, so these exceed the $20 threshold. The 2010 Ponzi "Tavola" Pinot Noir ($25) from Oregon is still a good value; it displays rich raspberry and cherry fruit with a forest floor character and supple texture. For a little more money, there's the 2010 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir ($35), with its bright raspberry and cherry fruit and a firm core of acidity, and the 2009 Foursight "Zero" Pinot Noir ($38), which is more structured, with juicy raspberry flavors. ("Zero" refers to zero new oak.)
If you're looking for a wine that's a little heartier, the 2009 Kenwood Sonoma County Zinfandel ($14) offers plump, ripe berry with some spicy notes and fine tannins. As for syrah, the 2009 Stickybeak Syrah ($20) is ripe, plump and peppery, with black fruit, spice and a hint of smoke. The 2010 Morgan Cote du Crow's ($18), a syrah-grenache blend, is peppery, with juicy blackberry and spice.
Another interesting blend, this one from Livermore and dominated by cabernet sauvignon and malbec, is the 2009 Murrieta's Well the Spur ($25), which displays lively black fruit and notes of anise and spice, supported by firm tannins. Novy Family Wines makes the very affordable 2010 Four Mile Creek Red Table Wine ($12), a blend of syrah, grenache and zinfandel that's lively and easy to drink.
Carmenere, Chile's signature red grape, has a distinctive peppery character that makes it a good choice for a lot of grilled meats. The 2010 Paso Grande Carmenere ($10) is an inexpensive example that combines juicy berry with that peppery note. The Cono Sur Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere ($13), made from organically grown grapes, has carmenere's peppery notes as well as cabernet's cherry fruit.
Spain has some bargains dominated by tempranillo or garnacha (the Spanish name for grenache) that pair well with grilled food. One to look for is the 2009 Las Rocas de San Alejandro Spanish Red Blend ($14), which combines grenache, tempranillo and syrah into a wine that's peppery and bright, with berry fruit and medium weight.