Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pairing Wine with Steak

By Liza B. Zimmerman


Pairings are so completely personal. Mario Maccioni, Sirio Maccioni of New York restaurant Le Cirque Fame’s oldest son, once told me he loved to drink an oaky Chardonnay with his steak. It wouldn’t be my top choice; however appeal is in the eye of the beholder.

Big, fatty dishes like steak tend to pair well with tannic, spicy reds. I spoke to Alex Berlingeri, corporate beverage director at the New York City-based ESquared Hospitality—the parent company for BLT Steak—about some of his favorite wine and steak synergies.

Berlingeri says that specific pairings depends “on the type of steak and the amount of fat [it has]. For example, Filet—which has almost no fat compared to a sirloin or Rib-Eye—can be paired lighter- to medium-bodied red wine because it doesn’t need to cut through fat.”

Some other examples he suggested include Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. The other night I had a Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir with a fairly rare Porterhouse and it worked well. I was surprised that the alcohol level of the wine didn’t throw off how the two flavors interrelated. I usually prefer Older World and somewhat funky wines, like Barbaresco—such as Produttori’s delicious and affordable selections—as well as Gigondas and other Rhônes with steak.

“Fattier meats need tannins to cut through the fat and a bigger-bodied red like a Cabernet [Sauvignon] is needed,” says the wine director. I personally find many hot climate Cabernet Sauvignons overwhelming with meat because of the heat that their alcohol levels can bring to the palate. 

Left Bank Bordeauxs are another story as they “will have less fruit up front and more earth tones,” he notes. Dusty notes and more balanced alcohol levels also make them more meat- and generally food- friendly in my book.

Beyond Pinot and Cab
Another great pairing, of which both Berlingeri and I are both fans, is Syrah “with all grilled meats because its black pepper finish compliments the char.” I will add that you can probably go Old or New World with this grape, mixing up pairings from everywhere from the Sonoma Coast to Walla Walla and the Rhône and South Africa.

Berlingeri makes the distinction that, “Syrah from new world will taste of jammy fruits with a black pepper finish but from the Rhône will have a less jammy fruit taste, with a nice blend of fruit, earth tones and black pepper finish.” I lend to love those earthy, spicy and pepper-inflected notes of the Old World Syrahs.

Countries with great BBQ traditions tend to make fantastic wines to go with them. South Africans love to sit down to a Braai, or traditional barbeque, and their Bordeaux blends and Syrahs are up to the pairing task. Perhaps no one does steak better than the Argentines and their Malbecs’ complex and accessible fruit and tannin structure soar with grilled meat.

Sangiovese has earth tones, fruit and medium bodied tannins. Many of those grown in California can be a little too tannic for my taste, but Tuscany and the neighboring region of Umbria make some lovely ones.  Sagrantino and Rosso di Montefalco in Umbria are also great choices for steak. Sagrantinos often need more time in bottle to age and a little air before serving to do them justice.

The Sauce Factor
Using rubs or sauces on steaks is going going to affect how they interact with different wines. “The earthier the preparation [with garlic or rosemary or a mushroom sauce], the earthier the wine,” you will want to serve, says Berlingeri. “A barbecue sauce is fruitier so you’ll want something with fruits or pepper like a Syrah,” he adds.

Berlingeri isn’t quite sure about white wines’ ability to pair with meat. “Even the heaviest white, Chardonnay, will only work with a lean meat: the wine won’t cut through the fat and the steak will always overpower the wine,” he notes.

The bottom line with pairings is always subjective in both the meat and wine selections. As Berlingeri notes, “It really comes down to how the steak is prepared, and then whether you prefer New versus Old World Wines.” I couldn’t agree more.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.

Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.

She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.

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