It’s not that you’re tired of steak. It’s not even that you’re tired of wine. (When that day comes, get into an isolation tank and do a lot of reflecting.) It’s that you’re tired of the … obviousness of the typical steak and wine pairings. Cabernet and steak, Malbec and steak, all manner of big, bold, in-your-face wines with the heft to supposedly square up to that cowboy-sized piece of cow on your plate. Ho hum.
We’re not challenging the basic logic of the meaty steak-meaty red wine pairing; there’s a reason it works, and there’s a reason it’ll continue to work for many carnivorous years to come. We’re just searching for something different, looking out into the world with that sit-by-the-window-with-a-journal type of longing, hoping to find a special, even unexpected match for our meat.
The challenge is complicated by the fact that no two steaks are created equal (and we’re not just referring to classic steakhouse envy wherein whatever steak your friend ordered looks better than yours). Depending on how you prepare it, whether it’s been wet- or dry-aged, and of course how much fat is marbled into the particular cut, the flavor and texture will vary. Steak doesn’t just taste like “steak,” which is why the variety of wines we be pair with it should be a lot bigger.
Instead of scrambling up and down the wine store aisles with a piece of raw meat—we don’t want to get kicked out again—we’ll consider what it is we love about the more common steak pairings and start by looking for those factors in other bottles. And then we might just go way off book and recommend Champagne. OK, probably not bubbly, but let’s see how wild we can get. We are meat-eaters, after all.
A Few Notes About the Typical
The reason we tend to end up with the same steak and wine pairing time and again is simple: the “rules” of steak and wine pairing are fairly straight forward and a couple of styles of wine seem ideally suited to the job. Among the basic concerns: matching the thicker (literal) texture of the meat with a (metaphorically) textured, complex wine; avoiding residual sugar since your cooked steak is all about delicious savoriness (which we owe to the Maillard reaction, basically the browning of the protein that makes a steakhouse smell like Heaven’s foyer); providing enough acidity to cut through the fattiness of the meat (granted, some cuts like filet mignon are leaner, but where steak goes, fat usually follows); and having enough tannic structure to give the wine weight and complementary impact (imagine pairing a steak with Pinot Grigio—that would basically be the opposite).
Again, these rules are sensible, and the pairings are fairly well established for a reason. But if we stop to consider what we’re trying to achieve when we pair wine with steak, we’ll find we can answer that call with other (and some entirely unexpected) bottles.
A Step Away from the Typical
The main argument for Cabernet Sauvignon is that it’s sufficiently full-bodied, rich in tannin and flavor, to “stand up” to the generally heftier flavors present in beef. But you can get something similar—and generally for a lot less—in a bottle of good Carménère. (The grape was born in Bordeaux, so a steak pairing was inevitable.) There’s plenty of dark fruit in a decent bottle but also notes of spice and even a char-like bitterness, making it a good candidate for grilled steaks.
Zinfandel isn’t as high in tannin as Cabernet Sauvignon, but it’s still nicely rich on the palate, with some spice and acidity to serve as a foil to the heavy meatiness of the steak. A quality California Syrah should make for a smaller leap from tradition (going by dollars alone, you’d want to buy in the upper $20s range); it’s still full-bodied and tannic, but here you’ll get more savory notes (think herbs and olive groves) with leathery fruit and hints of spice, meaning it could absolutely stand up to something robust, like a rib-eye.
And then there’s Malbec. Argentina is a steak eater’s paradise. And they tend to drink Malbec with their steak (though it’s not quite like what you’ll find at value prices on your liquor store shelf). Malbec can make for a more affordable fruit-and-tannin stand-in for Cabernet Sauvignon, but you’re just as good going for quality Rioja. Made mostly from Tempranillo grapes, Rioja will deliver the fruitiness and husky tannins you’re looking for in a steak wine with more oak influence than a Malbec (and more value than a Napa Cab).
A Couple Steps Away from the Typical
Filet Mignon is the most tender of the leaner cuts of beef, less about flavor (which comes more with marbling) and more about that incredible texture. And that’s why it’s a prime candidate for a subtler, gentler red wine, something like a Pinot Noir, moderately tannic and not too fruity with savory notes that complement, but won’t overpower, the steak.
Made with a minimum 80% Sangiovese, Chianti definitely carries some of the tannic heft you’re looking for in a steak pairing. It can be so tannic it’ll actually dry out your mouth, balanced by red fruit and a surprisingly perky acidity, which makes it a prime candidate to cut through one of the fattier cuts of meat.
Then there are always the wines of the Valpolicella spectrum, which start with a lower-tannin, approachable Valpolicella and go up in both dark fruit and intensity as you get to Ripasso and Amarone. The last is a fairly expensive wine made with dried grapes that has enough of its own intensity (dark fruit, spice, bitter cocoa) to look a steak square in the eye, although depending on the cut of meat, the wine might just stare it down, which isn’t really what we’re going for here. Steak yields the stage to neither vegetable side nor wine.