How To: Select Wine to Pair with Steak

There are certain dishes that beg for wine; steak is near the top of the list of those dishes.

Because steak is so rich, so flavorful and so, well, meaty, it needs a wine that can stand up to its powerful characteristics. Traditionally, that wine has been big reds, all of which have at least one of several traits: firm tannins, full body, or good acidity.

Tannins are those mouth-puckering, astringent elements in red wines that are imparted during fermentation in a process called maceration. The tannins don’t come from the grape juice itself, but from the grape skins, seeds and stems after the grapes are crushed.

Tannins don’t influence flavor per se, but they do impart an important element of a wine’s structure.  When wines made with grapes with strong tannins they can be harsh to drink when they are young, but over time with aging, the tannins soften, or become “rounder” in wine lingo. Wines with good tannic structure, even when they are young, pair well with steak because the fats in the meat balance the tannins without overwhelming the wine’s flavors. Good examples of these wines are California Cabernet Sauvignon, French Bordeaux blends featuring Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, the Nebbiolo-based Italian wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, and Spanish Rioja.

Another element of red wines that can tame a juicy steak is body, which is closely linked to alcohol content. In general, if you’re trying to pair a wine with steak based on body alone, you’ll want the alcohol content to be at least 14 percent.

Some wines with firm tannins also have good body, but there are other wines that have full body without the tannins. These wines have become increasingly popular in recent years because they can be enjoyed at a much younger age. Good examples of these wines include California Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Argentinean Malbec and Grenache-driven wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Another aspect of wines that can allow them to pair with steak is acidity. Although acidity is a characteristic more associated with white wines, red wines have acidity, too, and some more than others.

Fat in steak (or other foods) can coat the mouth – and taste sensors on the tongue – with a film. The acidity in wines helps dissolve that film, allowing for more taste enjoyment of both the food and the wine. Some wines have good acidity in combination with tannins and/or body, but some of the reds that are well known for their acidity are Pinot Noir/Burgundy, Chianti/Sangiovese, Barbera and Carignan.

Although red wines are probably the ideal pairing with steak, hearty rosé wines like those produced in Oregon, South Africa, Argentina or the Tavel region of the Rhone Valley of France can also pair with steak, especially if they have high acidity.

White wine is a little tricky to pair with steak, but sometimes necessary – like when two people dine together and one has a light fish dish. In these cases, a big, oaky and buttery Chardonnay from California can have enough acidity and strength of flavor to go toe-to-toe with a steak, especially a lean steak like filet mignon served with Béarnaise sauce.

Then there’s the ultimate fallback position: Champagne. Champagne, with its bracing acidity, pretty much pairs with anything, and rosé Champagne in particular can certainly go with a steak. Heck, even if it doesn’t, it’s still Champagne, so it can’t be all that bad.

Flava recommends

Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley, California, U.S.A.
$72.99 at Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits

Catena “Alta” Malbec
Mendoza, Argentina
$35.59 at BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s

Vietti Nebbiolo “Perbaco”
Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
$27.99 at Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits

Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé
Stellenbosch, South Africa
$17.99 at Premier Wines & Spirits

Möet & Chandon Brut Impèrial Rosè Champagne
Champagne, France
$69.99 at BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s

Mer Soleil Chardonnay “Reserve”
Napa Valley, California, U.S.A.
$39.99 at Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits