Zinfandel is the default option. It's widely available, inexpensive, and its fruity character pairs well with the sauce-slathered triumvirate of grilled favorites: steaks, burgers, and ribs. There are problems with Zinfandel, however. Given its high alcohol levels the wine is not at its best in summer heat, and Zinfandel is such a bold wine that it is not the ideal partner for more delicate grilled dishes like chicken, fish, shellfish, or vegetables.
There are equally good, affordable, and more versatile options than Zinfandel. When I head to the store for summer wines, I keep "GRPS" (grapes without the vowels) in mind. It stands for Grenache, Rosé, Portugal/Spain, and Sauvignon Blanc, and these wine categories open up a world of tasty new options for summer get-togethers.
Grenache: Common in Italy, France, Australia, and Spain, Grenache is a red grape that produces juicy, fruit-forward wines. Some of them have savory herbal flavors that go well with spicy foods, and their time in oak barrels provides smoky, grilled notes. Grenache cultivation is on the rise in the US, where makers are following in Australia's footsteps and often blend it with other varieties like Syrah and Mourvèdre. Grenache wines are robust but will not overwhelm barbecued chicken, and they are fantastic with lamb, beef, and pork. Look for Beckmen Vineyards, which produces an excellent estate Grenache retailing for around $20 as well as a blend of Grenache and other red grapes called "Le Bec" that retails for around $15. One of my favorite European blends with Grenache in it is the non-vintage St. Cosme Little James Basket Press, a steal at under $15. St. Cosme is one of the Rhônes best producers, and this wine has aromas and flavors of licorice, blackberry, and herbs. Have it with grilled chicken, as well as spice-rubbed pork. Whatever you have it with, your tastebuds will thank you if you put it in the fridge or cooler for 20-30 minutes before serving it. Like most reds it prefers to be at 60-65 degrees.
Rosé: Today's rosés are a far cry from the sweet White Zinfandels of the past. Most are being made in a dry style and should be served chilled. They are natural partners for hot dogs, sausages, and spicy fish and vegetable dishes. Look for rosés made with Pinot Noir (if you like strawberry flavors), Grenache (if you want a more full-bodied wine), or Tempranillo (if you are a fan of raspberry and rose petals). Rosé wines from the United States, Spain, France, and Italy are in most wine stores, and makers to watch out for include Château d'Aqueria, Viñedos de Aldeanueva Cortijo III, and Vinum Cellars who make a rich, distinctive rosé from Cabernet Sauvignon. None of these rosés should cost you more than around $15.
Portugal/Spain: Natives of these countries love to grill, and their wines--white and red--seem to pair beautifully with food cooked and eaten outdoors. Particularly good with barbecued shrimp and fish are the cheap, slightly spritzy Vinho Verde whites from Portugal, and fish and chicken go very well with the apple and peachy flavors of Spain's Albariño. You can't really go wrong with a red from this region, but Portuguese's fragrant red Touriga Nacional and the versatile Spanish grape Tempranillo, with its flavors of plum and blackberry, are excellent with barbecued foods. The distribution of Spanish and Portuguese wines is spotty, so ask your wine shop owner for their recommendations. One I like is the 2005 Osborne Solaz Shiraz-Tempranillo from Spain. For under $10 you get a wine that has summery floral aromas and flavors of raspberry and cherry, along with a toasted oak note that makes it ideal for barbecued beef, lamb, pork, or chicken.
Sauvignon Blanc: Whether oaked or unoaked, Sauvignon Blanc is so refreshing it is welcome at any barbecue. Sauvignon Blanc grapes are known for their zesty, citrusy flavors and aromas. Given time in a barrel, it takes on a rounder flavor profile of melons and oranges. Sauvignon Blancs are terrific with grilled chicken, shrimp, fish, or vegetables--especially if they have a citrusy marinade on them. New Zealand and the United States are making good value Sauvignon Blancs these days. Kim Crawford's bottlings from the Marlborough region of New Zealand have been consistent winners for the past several vintages, and I am particularly fond of the grapefruity "Pomelo" label from Mason Cellars.
If you want to look for any of these recommendations at a store near you, let your fingers do the walking and consult an online search tool like Vinquire. Simply plug in search terms and your zip code to find nearby retailers.