Wine writer Stuart Walton casts a sceptical eye over accepted wisdom:
Can there any more dependable rule of thumb when it comes to gastronomic partnering than red wines with red meats? It’s as though it’s the one piece of advice that hardly needs any qualifying. The big, muscular structures of most red wines are what the sinewy, densely textured or highly flavoured qualities of red meat need.
Like many another guideline, though, it turns out to have its range of exceptions. And if there is one basic principle behind the mismatches, it is that the wine is too heavy for the food.
I was reminded of this point at a recent press lunch, where the wines of highly regarded Chilean producer Aurelio Montes (who has interests in Argentina and the Napa too) were paired with some fairly straightforward dishes. A three-year-old Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that has benefited from a judicious oaking regime – some of the wine barrel-aged, some not, some of the oak new, some not, all of it French – with roast rack of lamb? Sounds a no-brainer.
In fact, it missed by a country mile, principally because the tannic edge on the wine was still quite keen, and there was an unfashionable, distinctly mdocain astringency to it. Alongside the pink-cooked lamb, which was served in one piece and was on the distinctly fatty side, the wine wasn’t having any of it. The softness of the meat and the only lightly rendered fat needed something correspondingly softer to accompany it.
We often assume that fattiness in food needs something in the wine to cut through it. In the case of red wines with fatty red meats (duck would be another good example), that cutting-edge comes much more digestibly in the form of ripe acidity than greenish tannin. Of the two supposedly safe bets with lamb – Bordeaux and Rioja – the latter wins out for me far more often, just because the textures of a Rioja Reserva are more sympathetic to the meat than most claret, at least when the wine is anything less than a decade old.
Too much alcohol, the bane of many southern-hemisphere and even some European wines these days, is a besetting problem. Anything north of 13.5% leaves a burn in the back of the throat that can detract from the flavour of meat, as well as even the most assertive saucing and seasoning.
The relative weight issue is best demonstrated by partnering red meats with red wines that should on paper be too gentle. One of the best-kept secrets of an often unjustly derided wine region, Beaujolais, is that its most illustrious wines are great with red meats. Try a Morgon with a couple of years’ bottle-age with your next joint of beef, and you may well find yourself pleasantly astonished at the balance. It can be pitch-perfect.
But what about the spiciest treatments, you may well wonder? Can a midweight red really stand up to, say, peppered steak, lamb rogan josh, or Mexican-spiced dishes? Wouldn’t they be better off with a big, belting Zinfandel or the burliest Australian Shiraz? Not so, in my experience. Again, massive alcohol just gets in the way. It can painfully accentuate the smoulder of chilli or black pepper on the palate in a wholly unappealing way.
What’s needed instead with spicy dishes is an opulent layer of flesh in the wine, big fruit, supple tannins, and perhaps a little intrinsic spice of its own, though that last isn’t mandatory. A youngish, gingery-peppery Crozes-Hermitage can go great guns with highly spiced dishes, but the svelte tones of an oak-burnished Merlot, from Chile, California or New Zealand, can be even better.
All of this begs the question as to what those great strapping bully-boys of the red wine world are really for, since they aren’t much fun to drink on their own. They do have the necessary brawn to stand up well sometimes to very mature, hard cow’s-milk cheeses. Otherwise, I’m increasingly finding that I don’t know the answer to that question.
Stuart Walton is a long-serving food and wine writer, a contributor to the Good Food Guide, and author of The Right Food with the Right Wine.