Campfire Wines for Spring

By Jeff Kralik, The Drunken Cyclist


The beginning of Spring marks the beginning of several “seasons” as we are finally able to again start conducting many more activities outdoors. For me, it means being able to ride my bike on actual pavement, trying hard once again to avoid becoming “that parent” that yells at the Little League umpire for missing a call, and finding at least a couple weekends to pack up the family to spend a night or two camping.
Now, I am far from a hardcore camper (and if my wife is joining us, we rarely venture more than a few feet from the car), but we do enjoy getting out of the city and into a tent at least a couple of times a year. When we do, we like to keep it fairly straightforward: well-equipped campsites (I like to think we have evolved as a species for a reason—there is no need to “rough it”), nothing overly high-tech when it comes to gear, and simple food.
There was a time when I prepared more elaborate meals for the campsite, but once my two boys came along I quickly realized that I was spending an incredible amount of time making sophisticated dishes for an audience that expressed little to no interest. 
The good side of that equation is that most of the food that we make for dinner is rather easy—we opt for the more “traditional” campfire fare: hotdogs, hamburgers, steak, baked beans, and of course, s’mores. There is little doubt that your menu will vary considerably and be far more interesting (can I join you?), but that is no reason not to put forth a few wine suggestions for your next trip out communing with nature. 
Grabbing just one wine to pair perfectly with all that is served at the campfire is akin to popping only one bottle for Thanksgiving—there are so many competing and varied flavors that one wine will rarely do the trick. The main difference? At Thanksgiving, you can always just go down into the cellar and grab a different wine, but when camping, if you bring a half dozen bottles of wine “just in case” you will either look like a raging alcoholic or give yourself a hernia trying to carry it all to the campsite.
The solution? 
Bring along a versatile bottle that will pair well with most of the food (and if you bring along two such bottles, you will tend not to care nearly as much how well the food pairs up).
Meals around the campfire tend to differ from home-cooked meals in three main ways: they tend to be saltier, sweeter, and certainly smokier than what you might normally make in your own kitchen. That makes choosing both harder (just give it up—it won’t be perfect) and easier (since it won’t be perfect, it can be very liberating).
Fruity Reds: A red wine is the natural choice, given the preponderance of meat and the potential lack of ice. Since there are a lot of competing flavors around the campfire, earthy, complex demure wines will be over-powered while big and bold tannic wines will come off as harsh and brooding. Thus you want to stick with red wines that are on the fruitier side.
2012 Franciscan Estate Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: Retail $29. A rich ruby color with an inviting cassis and raspberry nose. Well balanced on the palate with rich fruit and considerable backbone. 91 points.
2012 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Stepping Stone (Black Label): Retail $45. This one was impressive right out of the bottle–effusive raspberry and cassis and a hint of strawberry jam. On the palate, good fruit and depth, with a lingering finish. 93 Points.
2011 Gary Farrell Bradford Vineyard Zinfandel: Retail $45. A Pinot Noir lovers Zinfandel: with fruit that, while prominent, is by no means over-powering, it is refined and deep with great structure. I could smell and drink this for a very long time. 93 Points.
A White and a Rosé: When choosing a white for the campfire, you want to reach for a wine with quite a bit of acidity to cut through all those flavors. While a Sauvignon Blanc would be a stellar choice, I like to grab something a little more out of the ordinary. With rosé, you need to meld the two styles together—the fruit of a red and the acidity of a white. Here are two wines that would find their way into my cooler. 
2013 Anselmi Capitel Croce: Retail $30. 100% Garganega. Floral aromatics added on top of stone fruit. A fuller bodied white, this is one of those white wines that really wants to be a red–bold with racy acidity, this could handle a wide variety of cuisine. 92 Points.
2013 Château Miraval Côtes de Provence Rosé: Retail $20. I know. I know. It is a “celebrity wine” (and not just any celebrities), and it comes in an odd shaped bottle. But here is the thing: it’s really good. White flowers, red berries, plenty of acidity—this wine has it all.  91 Points. 
Sparkling Wines: For me, this is perhaps the best pairing for the campfire (and one that is likely to convince my wife to come along after all). You have all of the acidity of a white wine, perhaps just a hint of sweetness, and bubbles. Everything is better with bubbles.
N.V. Laetitia Brut Cuvée: Retail $25. 53% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay & 17% Pinot Blanc. The nose of this wine was all freshly baked bread with a side of cantaloupe. Lemon tart on the palate with a lively sparkle and a hint of pear. A fabulous domestic sparkling wine. 90 Points.
NV J Vineyards & Winery Brut Rosé Russian River Valley: U.S. Retail $38. 66% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 1% Pinot Meunier. While the Cuvée 20 by J is a bit more prevalent, this has just a bit “extra” that makes it worth searching out. Brioche and strawberry in abundance followed by a most impressive finish. 93 Points.

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  • For camping meals or sipping by a campfire, I would lean toward lower cost options, but that's my opinion. Around a campfire the wine is likely to be warmer than ideal and there is the high likelihood of smoke affecting smell and taste. Don't bother with a pricy wine, but go for flavor you enjoy at a lower cost. And, preferably in a screw top to quickly open and reseal. Just my opinion...

    Apr 22, 2015 at 12:41 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    When we are outdoors grilling, I find that the perfect wine is a good zinfandel. It stands up to almost anything that is on the grill. I do like Rose wines but you have to search for the dry ones. the few Spanish Roses that I tried seem to be the best of the bunch.

    Apr 22, 2015 at 1:05 PM

  • Don't forget the camping stemware. Critical to the whole campfire wine experience. We have a set in the insulated backpack, with the corkscrew. It's all about the equipment to celebrate the outdoors with! Viva!

    Apr 22, 2015 at 11:47 PM

  • Snooth User: loccasion
    1862723 31

    Sparkling wines by the campfire, how rustic chic... I love it! This list would stand up well to outdoor concerts and movies in the park.

    Apr 23, 2015 at 9:42 AM

  • Thanks for helping dispel my fear that Michigan spring will never come! Love your ideas for wines--sweeter reds, dry Mediterranean roses, sparkling... but with the humble campfire fare from my own pit fire, I'd go for humbler versions on the wines. I'll admit, with all the labor of setting up camp, cutting wood, cooking over an open fire, and all that lovely dirt and smoke, I'd probably opt for a guzzling wine, not a sip and taste and parse wine. I might even go for a 3L box or two, depending on the trek in to camp. House Wine Riesling from Washington or Vina Borgia Garnacha from Spain, both readily available, is what I am thinking!

    Apr 23, 2015 at 3:29 PM

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