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Perfect steak deserves the perfect wine
2014-03-14
By John H. Isacs

SAYING food and wine were important in my home during my formative years is a gross understatement. My gourmet mad father would meticulously plan meals weeks in advance, driving my mother and everyone else crazy.

One of the most anticipated meals was steak night when dad would order an oversized dry-aged Porterhouse steak and open up one of his great Bordeaux or Napa Valley reds. Bordeaux almost always meant a first growth, occasionally a second growth that he favored, or one of the right bank greats.

Napa Valley favorites included Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve or one of the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag’s Leap Winery. My steak night memories are among my most deliciously memorable.

Contrary to popular belief, pairing wines with steaks isn’t all that easy for the very simple reason that the world of steaks and wines is exceedingly complex. One must consider the type of steak, cooking method, level of doneness and marinades or sauces, if any. I suggest starting with the type of aging and cut of steak.

Dry-aging is best

With all due respect to the numerous superb examples of Kobe and Masusaka Japanese beef and grass-fed Argentinean steaks, there’s nothing that can top a USDA Prime dry-aged steak.

Unlike chicken or pork, the concept of fresher is better doesn’t apply to beef in general and steaks in particular. There needs to be an aging period ranging from days to several weeks when the enzymes in beef break down making the meat more tender and tasty.

The overwhelming majority of steaks in China and elsewhere are wet-aged, a process where freshly butchered cuts of beef are put into vacuum-sealed bags and aged about a week before release. This is the fastest, easiest and most cost-efficient way to age beef; however, it’s not the best.

A very small percentage of Prime steaks are dry-aged. After slaughter, hind quarters or whole cuts of beef are hung or racked and aged in a cool environment that allows the moisture in the beef to be lowered, thereby condensing flavors and tenderizing the beef. The best steaks may be dry-aged for weeks or even months and the result is a sublime taste and texture experience.

Because of their intense flavor, dry-aged steaks need no sauce, only a sprinkling of sea salt and fresh pepper and, of course, good red wine.

Filet

Filet mignon or tenderloin steaks are my least favorite cuts as they are the most lean and least flavorful. I’ve always thought this is the perfect cut for those who really don’t love steaks.

Filets need to be cooked rare and benefit from a sauce or dipping sauce. Wines paired with filet steaks should be fresh and fruity but not overly powerful, think Pinot Noirs or even a Cru Beaujolais.

Rib eye

Rib eye is the fattiest cut that begs for a fairly robust and tannic wine. Structured Bordeaux and Napa reds are great and if your rib eye is well-spiced with pepper or dry rub marinade you’d do well to pick a classy Northern Rhone Syrah.

Recently I had a thick-cut rib eye infused with fresh black pepper corns with a 1990 Guigal Saint-Joseph and the results were ineffably good.

Sirloin

The steak house classic cut is firmer in texture than a rib eye but offers a quintessential steak flavor. The intensity or meatiness of this cut makes it an ideal companion to classically styled, balanced Bordeaux or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

T-Bone/Porterhouse

Perhaps my favorite cut because it gives you a little bit of everything including a bone, serving a T-Bone or Porterhouse steak without a good red wine is a sin that will get you a one-way ticket to gourmet hell.

Bordeaux reds are lovely but I also recommend a nicely aged Spanish Tempranillo red wine from Rioja or Ribera del Duero. The Tempranillo grape when aged in oak has a great affinity for steaks and other red meats.

Marinades and sauces

Tangy or slightly sour and sweet marinades or BBQ sauces benefit from wines with good acidity like Pinot Noir, Barbera or an Italian Sangiovese.

These fresh reds are also lovely with steaks served with Béarnaise sauce. When marinades or sauces turn spicy, then Grenache, Syrah or Zinfandel wines should be considered.

Funky pairings

There’s an evolving new chic in the gourmet world, and that’s serving red meats with hearty white and sparkling wines.

While I’m not an avid supporter of this anything goes with anything as long as you like it movement, there’s nothing wrong with white and sparkling wine lovers enjoying their steak with their preferred wine, as long as they allow me to order a bottle of red.

Personal favorites

My favorite wines to pair with steaks are big concentrated red wines with generous fruit and tannins. They combine both power and grace, something like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Each of my favorites offers something different and distinct to a wine dinner.

Chateau Montrose is located in the heart of Saint Estephe and because of its power and structure is sometimes referred to as the Latour of Saint Estephe.

Over the past 150 years few chateaux have been as consistently excellent as this one. Like a top steak, this wine needs time to reach its potential; in top vintages this may mean waiting for a decade or two. Chateau Montrose vintages I recommend are 1970, 1982, 1989, 1990, 2000 and 2001. The 2005 vintage is also excellent but is still quite young.

The most famous Stag’s Leap Winery wine is CASK 23 but the wine I prefer with steaks is the S.L.V. CASK 23 is a blend of some of the best lots of S.L.V. (literally Stag’s Leap Vineyard) and the more feminine FAY vineyard.

It is exactly the masculine heady, concentrated and structured characteristics of the S.L.V wine that makes it a perfect steak wine. The 2005, 2009 and 2010 vintages are excellent but all need significant time breathing in a decanter.

My third pick is a relative newcomer, but still a wine worthy of the finest of dry-aged steaks. Craggy Range Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Hawke’s Bay Syrah is made from old clone Syrah vines and is one of the very best Syrah wines from New Zealand.

If you’ve been sleeping the past few years, you may not know that the Northern Rhone-styled Syrah wines from Hawke’s Bay, in particular the Gimblett Gravels area, are among the best New World Syrah wines. The Le Sol wine offers generous fruit, spicy qualities and structured tannins making it an ideal friend to your steak.

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