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Wine: Red Meat, Red Wine

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Over time, certain food and wine matches have become time-tested classics. I think of Stilton with Port, for example. Foie gras with Sauternes, Chablis and oysters, Champagne with caviar, lamb and Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir with duck are all tried-and-true food and wine pairings. But what about steak? What should you uncork with a thick, prime, juicy cut of beef?

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First, a caveat: As always, you should drink what you want. If you desire Chardonnay with your rare grilled ribeye, who am I to pooh-pooh the idea? In truth, I’m all for trying less-than-traditional wine and food pairings in the hope of discovering new and unusual food-wine affinities. Having said that, I do still tend to turn to red wine when there’s steak on the plate. But which ones?

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A serious steak is largely about fat and protein. And with grilled steaks in particular, there’s typically some charring and caramelization involved. So we need a wine that is sturdy enough to stand up to those strong flavors and dense textures, fat and protein. To me, that means Cabernet Sauvignon, especially New World versions. Much Australian Cabernet seems to have been made with a juicy grilled steak in mind. Maybe that’s because the Aussie’s spend so much time in front of the barbie.

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Let’s talk tannins. Tannin in red wine is the stuff that makes your mouth pucker. It a natural substance that comes from the stems and skins of crushed red wine grapes and serves to give the wine aging potential and structure. Well it’s precisely that structure (or “grip,” as some wine geeks call it) that we need to go mano a mano with a serious steak. The fat and protein in steak serve to actually soften the sometimes fiery tannins that typify wines from thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, creating a symbiotic duet that’s hard to beat. Lighter reds from thinner-skinned grapes such as Beaujolais or Grenache tend to get overwhelmed and taste wimpy next to a rich hunk of beef. A good, economical choice (Robert Parker calls it a “superb value”) from Australia to drink with your steak is Howard Park Leston Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($19.80). This is a meaty, intense, almost gamey and fleshy Cabernet with massive fruit (dark cherry and currant) flavors. It’ll totally rock your ribeye.

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OK, so maybe steak and Cabernet isn’t the most adventurous food and wine pairing. If you’re looking to broaden your horizons a tad, Malbec from Argentina is another great partner for grilled steaks, which tend to work well with the smoky flavors you’ll often find in Malbec. A good one is Mapema Malbec 2005 ($20) from Mendoza, Argentina. The firm tannins and dark berry and spice flavors would serve steak au poivre quite well.

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Another favorite steak wine of mine is d’Arenberg d’Arry’s Original Shiraz-Grenache 2005 ($19) from down under, a 50/50 blend of Shiraz and Grenache. This one, too, is earthy and gamey, with abundant licorice, coffee, chocolate, blackberry and cherry notes. Hearty tannins and peppery spice add to the enjoyment of drinking d’Arry’s with a tender, juicy steak.

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Anytime you take knife and fork to an exquisite dry-aged steak, it’s time to splurge. So I’d suggest a scrumptious Italian Super Tuscan: Mazzei Maremma Toscana Tenuta Belguardo 2004 ($60). This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (90 percent) and Cabernet Franc (10 percent) is a big wine, with colossal berry and mocha flavors and full tannins that’ll help cut through a steak’s proteins like buttah. Belguardo’s more economical Rhone-style sister Tenuta di Biserno 2006 Insoglio del Cinghiale ($19)—is also splendid with steak, not to mention game and braised meats.

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