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In search of the perfect steak wine
This report on a steak and wine tasting I did at Hawksmoor Spitalfields back in 2007 is now over 10 years old but the advice still holds good. It's quite a long read though so for more concise steak and wine matching advice head to The Best Wine Pairings for Steak.
"When my son Will was born in 1977 I couldn’t have imagined that 30 years on we’d be sitting together in his restaurant discussing food and wine matching. But as co-owner of an award-winning American-style steakhouse and cocktail bar, Hawksmoor, he and his restaurant manager Nick Strangeway (now with Hix restaurants) were the ideal people to help me decide what makes the perfect steak wine.
The plan was to see what impact cooking steak for different lengths of time had on the bottles you choose. Nick was also of the view that we should see what effect different cuts made which, fascinatingly, proved as significant as the cooking time.
Ironically Will and I started from unexpectedly different standpoints: Will being of the opinion that more mature, classic wines such as Bordeaux and Rioja were the best match for steak while I favoured younger New World reds with firmer tannins. We both had cause to revise our views.
FilletMeat at the restaurant is sourced from one of London’s top butchers The Ginger Pig from Longhorn cattle raised in North Yorkshire so even the fillet was exceptionally full flavoured, but its smooth, soft texture made it the subtlest of the steaks we tasted - “the kind of steak to serve with a salad for a light lunch” as Nick put it.
I don’t normally think of Pinot Noir as a match for steak but the best pairing by far when it was cooked rare, was the most elegant of our wines, a classically silky, seductive 2001 Daniel Rion Vosne-Romanée. A 2002 Au Bon Climat ‘Knox Alexander’ Pinot Noir tasted slightly too sweet but worked better when the flllet was served medium-rare and had acquired more caramelisation (at which point it slightly overwhelmed the Vosne-Romanée) It was also good if you served the fillet with béarnaise sauce (see below). The medium-rare fillet also went particularly well well with a Guidalberto 2005, the second wine of Tenuta San Guido, again a beautifully balanced wine with a marked level of acidity, a much more important factor in matching fillet than tannin, at least when the meat is unsauced.
Bone-in sirloinSirloin, in Nick’s view, is the ideal cut for serving blue because it has so much flavour of its own it doesn’t need to rely on caramelisation. This was where I thought our most tannic wine, a blockbuster Montus La Tyre 2005 Madiran from Alain Brumont would score. It was a fair match, but the barely cooked meat had the effect of unbalancing the wine and making it taste slightly sweet, as it did a 2003 Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe from Château La Nerthe. The two outstanding matches were a 2000 Ridge Monte Bello and a 2001 Pichon-Longueville, both still quite youthful so the barely cooked meat had the effect of making them taste at their peak.
The Pichon-Longueville and Ridge also showed well when the sirloin was cooked medium-rare, as did a very attractive 1996 Château St Pierre St-Julien which surprisingly turned out to be one of the star wines of the tasting. We both found a 2004 Catena Alta Malbec and a 2004 Turkey Flat Barossa Shiraz tasted slightly too sweet.
Rib-eyeRib-eye has more fat than other cuts so Nick advises his customers to go for a slightly longer cooking time to allow it to integrate with the meat. It makes for a juicier and more flavourful steak. Here it was fascinating how much difference the cooking time made. When it was served rare it paired best with a 2003 Champin Le Seigneur Côte Rôtie from Jean-Michel Gerin and a 2003 Collazzi Toscana (a ‘cut price super Tuscan’ according to Nick), both generous, ripe and full-bodied.
Once it was cooked medium-rare both those wines showed more youthful angularity and the smoother Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and Catena Alta Malbec became the better matches. When it was medium/well done, the longest cooked steak we had in the tasting, it changed again, tuning in with the riper, more fruit-driven wines from an inexpensive 2004 Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon to the Ridge Monte Bello. The Vosne-Romanée we’d enjoyed with the fillet, by contrast, didn’t taste as remotely as good.
Hanger/bavetteSeverely steaked out by this stage, we only tried one serving of hanger (served rare) just out of interest to see what the chewier texture of this favourite French cut would do. We liked it best, appropriately enough with two of the more inexpensive wines, a 2005 I Bastioni Chianti Classico and a gutsy 2004 Domaine de la Renjarde Côtes du Rhône Villages the one for its acidity, the other for its rusticity.
Overall conclusionsThis tasting was a real eye opener with both Will and I revising our cherished opinions about wine and steak. In a nutshell - and it is a gross simplification because it doesn’t fully take into account different sauces and sides - if you like your steak rare stick to leaner, more classic wines whereas if you like it better done (and therefore more heavily caramelised) go for riper, more fruit driven ones. If you like fillet, try red burgundy, Pinot Noir or a modern Italian red, with sirloin drink cabernet or merlot, especially red Bordeaux, and with rib-eye go for a Châteauneuf, Côte Rôtie or other Syrah or Shiraz or a top Tuscan red.
Of course it doesn’t quite work out like that in a restaurant, as Nick pointed out, as people order different cuts and want them cooked different ways so you need to find wines that perform well overall. Our most consistent bottles proved to be the ‘96 Château St Pierre St-Julien (Will’s favourite), the Collazzi (Nick’s favourite) and the Ridge Monte Bello (mine). The Catena Alta Malbec also showed well though it wasn’t our favourite wine with any of the steaks.
Disappointments were the much lauded 2004 Turkey Flat Barossa Shiraz which tasted too simple and sweet with many of the steaks (a bit of bottle age would have helped) and the Rioja in our tasting, a Marques de Vargas 2002 (much to Will’s disappointment, being a big Rioja fan). The cheaper wines, while pleasant, were largely out of their league leading us to the conclusion - and this is something that Will and I can agree on - that it’s not worth drinking minor wines with steak. At least that’s going to be our excuse from now on . . .
This tasting was based at the Spitalfields branch of Hawksmoor at 157 Commercial Street, London E1 6BJ Tel: 0207 247 7392. They have since opened branches at Seven Dials in Covent Garden and Guildhall in the City.
Sauces and sides - what difference they make
- Béarnaise - a new world Pinot Noir or even an oaked Chardonnay if you prefer white wine to red
- Creamy mustard sauces - red burgundy usually hits the spot especially with fillet
- Peppercorn sauce/steak au poivre - southern French or other blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, Malbec, modern Tuscan reds like the Collazzi
- Red wine sauces e.g. marchand du vin - top red Bordeaux and other Bordeaux blends
- Ketchup - better not but if you must, a modern, young Chianti Classico or Zinfandel
- Rich potato dishes e.g. gratin dauphinois - tips the balance towards Cabernet or Cabernet blends
- Creamed spinach - depends on the amount of cream. Spinach is slightly bitter which will accentuate sweetness in a wine but cream will counteract that. Should be relatively neutral in its effect compared to the flavour of the steak.
This article was first published in the October 2007 edition of Decanter.
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