Any beginner’s guide to pairing wine with steak will note that a tannic red wine with nice acidity, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, can be ideal for assuaging the salty and fatty flavors of steak. But where to go from there? The world of red wine, and steak for that matter, is full of options. With wines ranging from fruitful, tangy, or spicy, and a plethora of steak cuts, rubs and aging, choosing the right wine to pair with a steak dinner becomes a bit more complicated than just plucking a bottle from your local shop. To get expert picks, we enlisted the help of Cedric Nicaise, sommelier and former wine director of Eleven Madison Park in New York.
What to consider
When it comes to choosing the right wine for your steak, consider the cut, seasoning, and cooking technique. “Steaks that are great for grilling (rib-eye, hanger, strip) often have more char and smoke and therefore lend themselves to heartier wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but also Syrah, Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Nicaise says. A nice cut of steak is often characterized by the amount of fat it has, as this adds to the meat’s rich flavor, but cuts with less fat can be just as satisfying when paired with the right wine. For cuts like tenderloin or filet that are often cooked more delicately— either seared or oven-roasted — Nicaise says that lighter varietals like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, or Beaujolais are best. “Pinot Noir, in particular, can be the perfect match,” he says.
Varietals vs. Region
When in doubt (and if dinnertime is rapidly approaching) go for a full-bodied red wine. But if you’re looking for that ultimate pairing of indulgence, there are some grapes that do the job better; Nicaise suggests looking toward Syrah as an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s a bit lighter and has great savory notes, plus a little smokiness, which always goes a long way for me with steaks,” he says. However, if you just can’t seem to stomach steak without a Cab, there are several options from classic wine regions like Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and Sonoma. “Chateau Biac, a family-owned estate in Bordeaux, produces an ideal wine for steak that is dominant in either Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon depending on the vintage,” says Nicaise. “Knights Bridge, which is located in Sonoma, is another option that offers hearty and rich, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon wines without being overdone.”
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Cabernet Sauvignon: A classic choice. Its full-bodied flavor with notes of green bell pepper and dark fruit is often tempered by barrel aging, which can impart aromas of nutmeg, toast, and vanilla. Clos Pegase Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 is a big but balanced Cabernet from Napa Valley that won’t overwhelm the palate, while Penley Estate “Phoenix” Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 is a medium-bodied option with savory black cherry fruit flavors.
Bordeaux: Winemakers in Bordeaux blend Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for a balanced wine that has slightly softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon alone. Bordeaux wines tend to have dark fruit notes of blackberry, plum, and black cherry and are often layered with earthy flavors stemming from Merlot. Château Biac’s, Côtes De Bordeaux Cadillac is smooth in texture but bold enough to handle charred cooking techniques.
Zinfandel: Best paired with rib-eye, T-bone, and porterhouse cuts, Zinfandel can be medium to high in both acidity and tannins and is known for having a spicy yet robust grapey taste. Saldo’s Califonia Zinfandel is a nice option that has aromas of licorice, black pepper, blackberry, and baking spices, with a hint of smokiness on the finish.
Malbec: A dry, full-bodied wine that has jammy dark fruits, oak, tobacco, and often vanilla or chocolate on the nose, Malbec is another top pairing for steak. While it can stand up to heftier cuts, it pairs best with leaner cuts, such as top sirloin or flank steak. Coen Reserve 2019 has notes of coffee and tobacco that complement the oft-used charred or grilled preparation. Another nice option is Susana Balbo “Signature” Malbec, whose tart blackberry flavors are offset by rich earthy notes.
Pinot Noir: For cuts that contain little to no fat, like filet mignon, Pinot Noir can be the perfect pairing. Its fruitier nature, high acidity, and silky tannins provide a nice palate for the delicate flavor of filets and accompanying sauces. J. Vineyards Russian River Valley Canfield Vineyard 2017 Pinot Noir has notes of ripe cherries and balsamic.
Gamay: Although it is lighter in body, Gamay is rich in acidic red fruit flavors like cherry and raspberry, which balance well-marbled cuts like New York strip. Gamays hailing from Beaujolais, such as Domaine Jean-Claude Lapalu Beaujolais Villages Vieilles Vignes 2020, can also be floral with notes of dark violets offset by hints of white pepper and great spice tones.