Big Red Wines and the Steaks That Love Them
You think of steak, you think of wine. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, but not (and sometimes way messier). Not just any wine goes with any steak, however, and after choosing your preferred cut, you are next faced with finding the right vino.
To be sure, when pushing your cart through the wine section, there is nothing wrong with reaching for a bottle of your old standby. If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: Wine is for everyone. Don’t let wine—or wine snobs, real or imagined—intimidate you. I’ve drained an awful lot of bottles with kangaroos on the label, and the best wine, as they say, is the one that’s in your glass. But there is a reason wine, unlike, say, orange juice, has for centuries mesmerized drinkers. For one thing, it goes better with breakfast. But for another, the right wine can turn a plate of food into a culinary adventure.
Note that the very premise of this article might be flawed, however. There is no reason to choose your steak before the wine. When I was a young student, I had a professor say that there are two sorts of people in the world: those who buy art to match their sofa, and those who buy their sofa to match their art. Wine is no different. What goes on in the bottle transcends vintage (i.e., the year printed on the label). Some wines—particularly those from the “old world” (those from France, Spain, Italy—anyplace once part of the Roman Empire, basically)—are grown in soil that has been cultivated for a thousand years. You are literally drinking that effort. Wine, in other words, need not be the supporting player; it can be the main event.
Regardless of the order you choose—steak then wine, wine then steak—the question remains: Which wines go with which beef? To answer this question, I reached out to Julie Joy, the director of beer, wine and spirits for Rouses Markets and a twenty-year veteran of the trade. She said when choosing a wine, there are some basic practices to get the perfect pairing, and that the two most important things to keep in mind are marbling and seasoning.
“The world of wine is built on balance,” says Joy. A fine wine, for example, balances acidity and fruitiness. Too much fruit yields a “flabby” wine. Too little, and a wine that is “thin.” Both can be fun to drink, but if you choose to refine your palate, you will invariably begin to seek out a complexity beyond whether it is simply quaffable. “Just as you want a balanced wine, you want a wine that balances your meal—especially when it comes to really great cuts of meat.”
The rule at its most basic: if you choose a steak with more marbling (which is the fat in a steak), then you don’t want a full, overdone red wine. The “big red wine” and a boisterous steak such as a ribeye will fight each other in the mouth and overload the senses, much in the way that too much icing can turn a great cake into an unpleasant chore. Instead, the discriminating wine buyer should look for a wine with more tannins and acidity.
(Tannins are what give wines that dry, astringent feeling in the mouth. Sound unpleasant? It’s not. Tannins are the reason coffee is so satisfying, but not exactly the first drink you reach for after stepping off the treadmill.)
Getting down to specifics, you would not pair a ribeye steak with a heavy red blend (i.e., a wine made with multiple, overly expressive grape varieties) or with a Bordeaux (the famed wine region of France best associated with Merlot), or with a spicy Zinfandel (a grape variety that yields a full-bodied, sometimes “jammy” wine that is grown very successfully in California).
Instead, the best wines for ribeye—the most marbled steak you are likely to find—include bottles of syrah (which is exactly the same thing as shiraz, both named for the same grape), grenache (a red grape), and some lighter red blends. These are bottles with just enough weight to compete with the steak, but not so much that they overpower it. In other words, wines that bring balance.
Another option for the ribeye and its marbled brethren are Italian wines, generally, which are excellent food wines from an excellent food culture. “Italian wines are lighter in general,” says Joy. “Not all of them, of course—but something like a sangiovese, the primary grape grown in Chianti, is a great choice.” Rouses sells a wine called Toscoforte, bottled by a family called Guicciardini, who have been doing this for 900 years and thus have some idea of how to make a good wine. “Toscoforte has complex aromas and fruit in a robust body, but it has really great tannins,” says Joy. “It’s the tannins that will cut through the fat.”
Conversely, if, rather than a ribeye, you instead went with a lean steak, you would want a heavier wine to complement it—again, to provide balance. A heavier red blend, here, would be ideal. One option is Abstract, a wine from Orin Swift Cellars, which is made from grenache, syrah and petite sirah grapes. Likewise, for a filet mignon, which has the lowest fat of the high-end steaks, a bottle of Volver, a Spanish wine made from tempranillo grapes, would be ideal, as the wine packs a lot of body.
The factors that lead you to choose a bolder wine for a leaner meat apply also to seasoning. If your steak was prepared with little more than light salt and pepper, you can go for a bit more gusto on the wine. If it was seasoned with wild abandon, consider something a bit more modest.
When choosing a wine, overall, you can go two ways: conservative or daring in terms of taste and complexity.
A lot of it simply depends on your overall demeanor and the guests who might be sharing said bottle, but an enterprising host might consider both types and allow drinkers to work out the differences for themselves. Comparing and contrasting wines is one way that wine lovers try to figure out what’s going on, and why, with different labels.
On the leaner end of the steak spectrum, and getting to the fattier side, you’ve got filet mignon, strip steak, and then the porterhouse. (We’ve already covered ribeye.) When considering a strip steak, a daring drinker might cast a long, lingering eye on the aforementioned Toscoforte and its 100% sangiovese grape content. For your Steady Eddie sort of drinker, the best strip wine might be a Chianti, which is generally made with about 50% sangiovese grapes. (No, Chianti is not generally thought of as a steak wine, but because it is packing serious tannins, it will balance out the fat and full flavor of the strip.)
For a filet mignon, the mild wine drinker would be well served with a nice red blend such as a bottle of Conundrum, owned by the Wagner Family of Wine in California. It is made with petite sirah, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
Another meek wine might be a bottle of Abstract from Orin Swift. From across the ocean, a Bordeaux such as Chateau Greysac, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot, would also do the trick. Indiana Jones, however, would reach fearlessly for the aforementioned Spanish wine Volver Tempranillo, or perhaps even Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha (which is grenache, translated, and known for ripening when conditions are hot and dry, and thus ideally suited for the Spanish climate.) Tres Picos lands somewhere in the middle between light and bold. So that you know what to expect, the website Wine Folly favorably describes the flavor of grenache as an “unmistakable candied fruit roll-up” and cinnamon.
But what exactly, you might be asking, is a “bold wine.” It’s a fair question! I asked Joy what “bold” means to her, and she compared it to… a sandwich.
“That’s what every glass is like: a sandwich,” she says. “A glass of bold wine has so much going on in it. The mouthfeel is very heavy. When you drink it, it completely takes over your palate, and you know you’ve had something very distinct—the same way you feel after having a sandwich.” On the other hand, she defines a “light” wine as something like a palate cleanser—something almost refreshing, but not overpowering.
Next on the lean-to-marbled spectrum of steaks is the mighty porterhouse, sometimes called the T-bone. “What’s fun about the porterhouse is that it is a single steak of a filet and a strip held together by a bone,” says Joy. Because of that mix of meats, she suggests having fun with it, and to drink a wine with a blend of grapes. She suggests for the timid wine drinker a zinfandel, because of its nice spicy flavors, and because zinfandels possess perhaps the most sugar of any big red wine. (She warns that that kind of flavor spectacular could lead to palate fatigue, so drink cautiously.)
“For the explorer, I would recommend something called a tricorno,” she says. The Tuscan red contains three grapes: sangiovese, for the lighter acidity, as well as cabernet sauvignon and merlot to bring depth. Such wines are often called “super Tuscans,” oftentimes made with grapes that are not indigenous to Italy.
Walking through the meat department, it’s pretty obvious that every part of the cow can be made into one meat or another, but not all cuts of steak are created equal. If you are buying one of the less expensive, and perhaps lower-quality cuts (relative to, say, a ribeye), the truth is there is not much point in going all-out for a bottle of wine. Just being wine is credential enough to get the job done. For these cuts of beef, you might consider going for the most popular wine in America: a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
Not all cabs are created equal, some being so exquisite as to ruin you for all others, and some… well, they’re wine, anyway.
“With a sirloin or something like a flat iron, it’s not that you don’t want to pair the best wines, but do you go all-out for those as well?” asks Joy. She suggests going for a cabernet within your budget. A middle-of-the-road such wine—medium bodied, medium price point—would be a bottle from Josh Cellars: a steady, consistently good and accessible wine. (It is a no-surprises tipple and has proven very popular in recent years.) If cabs aren’t your thing, Tait Family Winery in Australia puts out an inexpensive shiraz called—I regret to say—The Ball Buster, which scores consistently well with wine critics, punching well above its weight. If you are looking for a mid-tier wine closer to home, Charles Smith Wines puts out a fantastic syrah that could stand on its own with just about any steak out there.
One more thing: As the pandemic recedes and parties proliferate, there might be a temptation to go for the “hot” wine—something you are seeing everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but don’t be afraid to try something different. Rather than bring a bottle to a party and have the host say, “Oh, I love that wine!” why not try showing up with something that elicits, “Oh, what’s that? Let’s try it!” Wine is ultimately a communal act—something to be appreciated as an art, and likewise to be shared. To inspire. To transcend.
To drink wine is to drink the Earth itself. A bottle of wine is more than fermented grapes with a label applied thereto. It is a season’s growth—the sun and rain and wind—tranquility and catastrophe alike—grown on vines long planted in soil sometimes centuries cultivated. Wine is human experience: the crushing of the grapes, the yeast added to the juice (and the history of the yeast), the fermentation in vats, the subsequent barrel-aging of some wines (and the barrels themselves, and their histories), and finally the bottling of the wines—years often elapsed from the first to last steps. And that’s just the beginning.
There is a reason wines from Napa Valley and wine from Burgundy are so different: The earth and the effort. Wine writer Matt Kramer once did the math on just how long it takes to establish distinct wine growing areas able to produce fine, distinct wines: four years from planting a vineyard to harvesting grapes. Fifteen years until the vines mature. Up to 25 years before a fine wine reaches perhaps its fullest expression. A winemaker, in other words, might see, at best, the maturity of a mere 20 vintages. What he or she learns about the cultivated land’s distinct characteristics—what Kramer calls the “cartography of taste”—and the best processes to produce the most subtle and expressive wines, are then passed on. Mastery of this spiritual process is rare indeed, if it truly exists at all.
So, yes. Grab that bottle you’ve never tried before. The wine within could only have grown one time in one place. Every year is different. Every place is different. And none will ever be repeated again. And though it is an art, it is one not to be taken too seriously. Wine without merriment is no wine at all. Every vintage is a tribute to the Earth and the human effort to find expression though it. Open that bottle, and if you can, have another.
And at the end of the day, no matter which wine you choose, it’s not everything. Julie has one bit of ironclad advice for a day of steak and revelry: start the day with an Old-Fashioned, the famed cocktail made with a nice spicy bourbon, a three dashes of Angostura bitters, a cube of sugar and a splash of water. Serve on the rocks and garnish with an orange slice and a cherry. “If you turn on a grill,” she says, “you should have an Old-Fashioned in your other hand!”
With moods lifted and dinner plated, reach firmly for the corkscrew. The time for celebration has begun.