BEEF & WINE: PAIRING Q&A

1. Beef and wine are a classic match. What makes them taste so good together? 

Beef and wine have an undeniable affinity for one another. The profound, meaty, complex, rich flavor of beef is complemented by a beverage that’s equally complex, savory and rich. Nothing fits the bill better than wine. There’s also the all-important issue of texture. Mouthfilling concentrated wines provide just the right counterbalance to beef’s dense texture. Like the perfect gastronomic seesaw, a sip of the wine makes you want another bite of the beef, and a bite of the beef makes you want a sip of the wine. 

2. Which wine varietal overall is most “beef flexible”?

Cabernet sauvignon. Among the most powerful and concentrated red varietals, cabernet sauvignon can also be elegant at the same time. For its part, beef has a flavor that’s bold and yet refined at the same time. In this way, cabernet “mirrors” beef, creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts. Cabernet sauvignon also possesses a considerable amount of tannin, which gives it the structure and intensity to pair well with beef.

  

3. Does the cut of beef matter when choosing a wine?

Yes. certain cuts of beef like flank steak and chuck are often very flavorful. they need a wine that’s bold and lipsmacking. Simple but fruity merlots and zinfandels work well, as do most inexpensive reds from Australia—which are super-fruity and usually soft as velvet. “Middle meat” cuts from the rib and loin—like tenderloin, strip steak and prime rib—are at their best with more sophisticated, complex (expensive) wine. 

4. How do seasonings and spices impact a wine choice?

Seasonings and spices often act as a bridge to wines. As a simple example, sprinkling beef with some cracked black pepper helps the dish marry well with syrah/shiraz, which has a black pepper–like flavor. Herbs in a beef dish can underscore the hint of herbal flavor in many cabernet sauvignons and bordeaux. the seasonings to be careful with are hot chiles, which can make a wine taste hollow. Chiles need a cushion of sweetness to land on, so fiery-hot beef dishes often do best with a white wine that has a bit of residual sugar. Wines with a lot of oak flavor often need a bridge to connect them to beef. toasted nuts, brown butter and sesame oil are all excellent bridges to oaky chardonnay.

5. What about cooking method?

Cooking method, too, should influence wine choice. one of the best American wine and food marriages is grilled steak and a big, oak-aged cabernet sauvignon. The flame-seared flavors and crusty texture imparted by grilling are echoed by the toasty oak of the wine. Similarly, soft, braised beef dishes taste best with wines that feel soft and seamless on the palate. That’s the principle behind beef stew and red burgundy (pinot noir).

6. Are white wines an option with beef?

Yes-depending on the dish, many white wines work very well, as do roses. Thai beef salads and beef stir-fries are fantastic with minerally rieslings from Germany. Steak salads with greens and vegetables are terrific with sauvignon blancs, which have a "green" flair of their own. And with garlicky beef dishes, a dry rose is a must-try experience.

7. How does marbling affect wine?

Since fat is a carrier of flavor, marbling gives beef richness. The more marbling the beef has, the more dense and concentrated the wine should be. A well-marbled piece of beef should not be served with a light-bodied wine, since the wine will taste frail next to all that beef flavor. Instead, opt for a powerhouse-a wine that's muscular enough to balance the richness.

8. If the wine is rare and expensive, what sorts of beef dishes would work best?

Simple, expensive ones. A beef dish with loads of ingredients and flavors happening all at once will take the limelight off the wine and make it taste neutral. A good rule of thumb is: the more expensive and rare the wine, the more you should opt for “luxury” cuts of beef (prime rib, tenderloin, ribeye and so on) and then prepare the meat utterly simply. 

9. Are there a few best wine bets when the beef dish is humble (e.g., pot roast)? 

One of the principles of good pairing is matching wines and foods of the same “status.” A simple pot roast doesn’t require a super expensive bordeaux. In fact, the two can feel wrong together. For example, you can pair humble, flavorful, no-fuss cuts of beef, like ribs, with humble, flavorful, no-fuss wines—juicy, inexpensive reds from Argentina, Spain or the south of France. However, when a fine New York strip or prime rib is being served, a more complex, expensive wine (such as a top-flight 
bordeaux or a great American cabernet) is definitely in order.

10. Last but not least, what’s the biggest “no-no” in beef and wine pairing?

The biggest mistake in pairing beef and wine is adding blue cheese to the dish. Blue cheese is one of the most powerfully pungent, salty and microbial foods. It makes most wines—red and white—taste dull and insipid. So save the blue cheese for dessert and serve it with a sweet fortified wine such as port.

 

Credit: Karen McNeil, Author of The Wine Bible. Funded by the Beef Checkoff.