News and views | So what DO you pair with a blockbuster cabernet?

News and views

So what DO you pair with a blockbuster cabernet?

Talk to chefs and sommeliers about the wines they like to match with food and only rarely will Cabernet Sauvignon crop up. Many are, in fact, quite openly critical of the blockbuster style of many modern cabs.

Even Robert Parker, when I interviewed him a few years ago, expressed a preference for simple unoaked wines from the Rhone for much of his everyday drinking. Presumably though purchasers of the new world’s top cabernets are not just buying them to lie around their cellars. Somebody out there is enjoying them - but with what?

The obvious answer would seem to be large hunks of rare, red meat but not everyone is convinced about that. “I find that simple grilled meats like steaks have insufficient power to keep up with some of these wines” admits South African chef Pete Goff-Wood of Eat in Capetown. “The only way to prevent the wine from taking over completely is to go the slow-braised route with something like oxtail or a good daube of beef.”

Some fattiness in the meat is also a help with younger cabernets. Dishes like braised belly of pork or shoulder of lamb can kick a tannic cab into touch better than a super-lean cut like fillet. That needs to be balanced with a certain amount of acidity in the view of John Campbell, chef of The Vineyard at Stockcross who has many top quality Californian Cabernets on his list. “Sherry vinegar is ideal as it allows the fruit and the tannins in the wine to overlay the dish harmoniously.”

“In general the younger the wine the saltier, sweeter and fatter the food needs to be to go well with it” says former sommelier Larry Stone, now general manager of the Rubicon Estate. Undoubtedly there is a difference between European and American palates when it comes how meat is seasoned and what is served as an accompaniment which makes the American palate more tolerant to intense fruit flavours. “American chefs like to cook with fruit and serve it as an accompaniment to savoury courses probably more than our European counterparts” says Karen Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars. “One example that comes to mind would be venison or other wild game like duck with huckleberry sauce. The wild berry flavours in the sauce act as a natural bridge to the wines picked at these higher sugar levels.”

On the other hand one of the US top experts in food and wine matching Andrea Robinson points out that bitterness can also contribute to a successful match. “Bitter-edged veggies like broccoli rabe, grilled radicchio and roasted brussel sprouts are real winners. I also find the more pungent, piney herbs like rosemary basil and thyme really work well to pull out the cedar/eucalyptus elements in these wines.” (To which I would also add mint)

Australian food writer Lyndey Milan author of ‘Balance: Matching Food and Wine’ reckons the flavours of North African cuisine are particularly sympathetic to Australian cabernets. “Red meats flavoured with sweet aromatic spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon (not chilli) work well especially with the older ‘two tooth’ type of lamb.” Cakebread backs her up on Moroccan flavours, pointing to the softening effect salty ingredients such as capers, olives and preserved lemons can have on the tannins of more robust wines.

Richly flavoured carbs also build a bridge to big cabs. A luxurious mash with plenty of butter and cream, a rich cheesey polenta or some earthy, mealy beans all have a mouthcoating quality that will mitigate tough tannins.

The way a wine is treated can also make it more food-friendly. “Critics of high alcohol wines are often complaining about temperature” says John Campbell. “If a wine is above 18 degrees C the alcohol volatility is increased and takes over from the true flavour of the cabernet. These wines really need to be drunk between 14 and 16 degrees.” Larry Stone agrees. “Many people who complain about the alcohol in Californian wines are very happy to recommend sake which often pushes to 17% ABV. Part of the reason for its greater acceptability is that it is served cool. I also tend to pay attention to the temperature a big, bold wine is served and may serve it at a cooler temperature if I feel the balance of fruit intensity is being outweighed by the perception of alcohol.”

Economic pressures and consumer demand on scarce wines also result in wines being released earlier than they ideally should be. Once no-one would have dreamt of drinking a top Bordeaux within the first five years of its life yet according to Janet Trefethen of Trefethen Vineyards “over 90% of US consumers age their wine in the back of their car en route from the grocery store to the dinner table. We are drinking our cabernets too young” she admits. Michel Roux of Le Gavroche, author of Matching Food and Wine, agrees. “The minimum should be 5 years - 7 years to be food-friendly. Ten years is better.” (I agree with him up to a point though I’d probably drink my cabernet a couple of years younger than he would.)

My own tips would be to avoid vast pools of intense winey reductions which are too similar to cabernet in flavour and consistency. Just serve a couple of spoonfuls of the accompanying jus and let the cabernet help with the job of saucing. Caramelised onions always seem to help matching big wines as does roasted or slow-cooked garlic. My ideal match would be a spice crusted barbecued butterflied leg of lamb which included salt, rosemary and cumin in the spice mix. I’d defy anyone not to enjoy a cabernet - blockbuster or otherwise - with that.

Love it
I don’t see a problem in matching big red wines especially not with such a classic grape variety as cabernet. To take such a position as a sommelier or wine writer seems oddly narrow-minded to me
Larry Stone, Rubicon Estate

Linguine pasta with mushrooms and caramelized onions with a touch of thyme leads me to the Cabernet/Bordeaux section of the cellar.
Janet Trefethen

Loathe it
I hate this fashion for big, extracted wines - the Parkerized wines of high alcohol and low tannins. I find them obvious and vulgar.
Raymond Blanc

They (blockbuster reds) are made to explode in front of the competition at wine tastings but they’re not that food friendly.
Heston Blumenthal

Cutting edge cabernet pairings:
Squab, treacle and rhubarb - John Campbell of The Vineyard at Stockcross

Lievre a la royale - Benoit Allauzen, sommelier at the Greenhouse, London

Well hung loin of wildebeest - Pete Goffe Wood, Eat, Capetown

Pot roast pork shoulder with prunes - Michel Roux, Le Gavroche

A good macaroni and cheese - US food and wine writer Andrea Robinson

Venison with huckleberry sauce - Karen Cakebread, Cakebread Cellars

This article was first published in the November 2006 issue of Decanter

Photo © Davidoff777 -

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