The only time I pray for rain is when I’m invited to a barbecue. Oh, except for the Test Match when we’re nine wickets down and staring defeat in the face. Call me a miserable old so-and-so but I don’t “get” barbecues. Heaven knows how often I have watched chums who are unable to scramble or even crack an egg elbow their wives aside and take charge. In an atavistic surge of sweaty testosterone, they poke at toothpaste-pink sausages and shapeless bits of chicken – “Or is it pork, darling?” – while paraffin-fumed smoke billows from a rusting grill. Welcome to salmonella, have a nice day.
Last year, immediately prior to one such event, those of us who feared the worst all had the same bright idea and bumped into one another at the local Pizza Express. “I had no idea you
guys knew each other,” exclaimed our host genially as he effected the introductions. Sheepish grins and full tummies all round. My standby that day, and for all barbies, is New World pinot noir. The heartbreak grape, as it is known, is fiendishly difficult to grow and rarely flourishes outside Burgundy or Champagne. Somehow, though, it has found homes from home in Oregon, Central Otago and Victoria. Such wines are perfect for barbecues – smooth and supple with brambly, juicy fruit. They’re so gentle they can be drunk on their own, so soft they can go with fish, full-flavoured enough to cope with meat, light enough to be drunk chilled and robust enough to be consumed at lawn temperature.
They’re not always cheap, but the likes of Domaine Drouhin, Firesteed and Erath (Oregon); Mount Edward, Mount Difficulty and Rippon (New Zealand) and De Bortoli, Kooyong and Yering Station (Australia) are all well worth seeking out.Most come complete with screw caps, ideal for instant alfresco access and essential if you’ve just eaten something dodgy. As any oyster-lover will tell you, an immediate, hearty glug of wine will usually put things to rights intestinally after a bad ’un.
But if barbecues are the bane of summer, picnics are the delight, not least because you can cook the grub in the comfort of your own kitchen without recourse to firelighters or boy scouts rubbing damp twigs together. And if you’re a lazy so-and-so as well as a miserable one, you can even buy it ready-made and packed from somewhere swanky.
Just because you’re outside, there’s no need to let vinous standards drop. For a start, no picnic is complete without fizz. If you’re flinging woo at the object of your affection, or even someone else’s object of affection, it has to be champagne. If you plan to see said O of A again, it must be Grande Marque and vintage at that. If it’s a one-off tryst, you can get away with a smart independent merchant’s own-label. Tanners, Corney & Barrow and Berry Bros & Rudd have excellent house champagnes. Majestic often has deals on the big names.
But don’t despair if you’ve been credit-crunched. Other sparklers work, too. Prosecco is picnic perfect: light, zesty and fruity, with a relatively low alcohol level and similarly modest price tag. It’s also all the rage at the moment, so you can enhance your reputation for style and panache while saving the pennies. Look, too, for other sparklers, from the Rhône Valley, the Loire and the New World. Just avoid headache-inducing cava.
Rosé, too, is very popular, but don’t you dare buy any Blush zinfandel from California – it’s sugar-laden rubbish. Look instead for the many well-priced examples now coming from Spain, Portugal, Provence, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand. Chuck them in the freezer for an hour before you set out and, if you don’t have a cool box, wrap them in damp newspaper as you would a freshly landed trout. I also always keep a decent screw-cap chardonnay handy. As for reds, I stock up on hearty cabernets, malbecs and shirazes from Chile, Argentina and Australia. Being fruit-forward, ripe and juicy, they’re concentrated without being overly complex. Don’t be scared to chill them; if they’re too cold they’ll soon warm up in the sun.
Dessert wines such as sauternes, beaumes-de-Venise, Hungarian tokaji and Canadian ice wine are ideal for déjeuner sur l’herbe; they add a touch of the exotic and can match a rich pâté as well as puddings or cheeses. And if your strawberries taste of nothing, soak them in a glassful for a while.
A final word of advice: screw caps might be conquering the world, but don’t forget your corkscrew.