Summer is here which means it is officially grilling season! I think I speak for many when I say that one of my favorite meals to grill is steak! The smell of a juicy Rib Eye sizzling on the grill or a New York Strip charring over the open flame is sure to make your mouth water. I’m getting hungry simply writing about it. However, the only thing better than a perfectly grilled steak is a perfectly paired Cabernet to go along with that steak. Totally cookie cutter? Maybe… But doesn’t the saying go, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?!”
The obvious pairing with steak is Cabernet Sauvignon. But today we’re going to dive a bit deeper. I’ll break down both, the basic and in depth rules you should keep in mind when selecting a Cabernet to pair with your steak this summer. What cut of steak are you serving? And what temperature are you cooking it to? What medium are you using to cook your steak? All these factors play a role in your selection for the absolute pairing.
The Basics — Maybe Not So Basic…
Before we hop into what goes with what, we need to know why steak and Cabernet Sauvignon make such a great pairing in the first place. So, lets start from the beginning, which involves a little bit of science. The tannins in a wine come from the grape skin and wine barrels, which deliver both bitterness and astringency to your taste buds. Tannins naturally bind with proteins and fats. Steak, of course, is a fat heavy and protein rich food. There are some cuts of steak that are less fatty than others, such as the Filet Mignon, but more on that later. So what does this mean? Red wine with high tannins pairs well with high protein foods.
When we take a sip of a tannic red wine, natural saliva proteins in our mouths bind to the tannins which makes the wine taste less astringent. If you also take a bite of a delicious steak in combination with your sip of wine, the tannin will also bind to the protein and fat of the beef which will affect the taste of the wine making it taste smoother and softer. To sum it up, the fats will wash away the tannins. And vice versa, the tannins will act as a palate cleanser to ‘scrape’ the fattiness from the inside of your mouth. Creating a true pairing!
Cabernets or red wines with high acid will also cut the fat in food. The chargrilled edge’s of a steak (if grilling is how you choose to cook your steak) also mirrors a wine’s tannins. As you age red wines, the tannins will soften, making the wine less astringent. Aged Cabernet pairs nicely with certain cuts of steak.
Keeping it Simple
A general rule of thumb is simplicity: match the intensity of your meal with your wine. Lean cuts of steak tend to pair best with light or medium-bodied Cabernet. And fattier cuts of steak tend to pair best with big, bold Cabernet. Think delicate with delicate or bold with bold.
The New York Strip is probably the most versatile of steaks when it comes to pairing. It is in the mid range in flavor, fat, and texture. Season it with salt and pepper and grill it, and you’ve got yourself the steak that will go with almost any Cabernet.
New York Strip
If you want to get a little bit more technical with your NY Strip pairing, you generally have a good charred edge on a NY Strip when grilling and you’ve seasoned it generously with copious amounts of black pepper giving the steak some spice. Look for a Cabernet with some tannin to balance the charred crust, noticeable toasted oak to compliment the spice on the steak, and a little bit of acid to equal the texture of the NY Strip which is tighter than a Filet or a Rib Eye, but still tender.
A Rib Eye is marbled with lots of delicious fat and is known to be one of the richest, beefiest cuts. Big, bold Cabernet will stand up to this cut. You’ll want a structured wine, meaning lots of tannin to compete with the fat in the steak and to cleanse your palate, new Oak to merry with the char grilled crust, but still has balance. Alternatively, you can also reach for an older Cabernet with less tannin to create a pairing where there is more subtly in the fruit and spice flavors, but they are equally elevated by the fat in the steak.
Keep in mind that a Filet, although lean, is very rich in texture. A Cabernet with lower alcohol and good acidity to cut through the rich texture, but not so heavy on the tannins is what you’re aiming for. The Filet Mignon is one of the most delicate cuts and it calls for a delicate wine. You don’t want such an overpowering, big jammy Cabernet to mask the delicacy of the meat. Soft tannins is key with this cut, and so older Cabernet also works well. Especially if you can find a well balanced bottle with age holding on to just nuances of dried cherry, toasted oak, and enough acid to tame the rich texture of the steak. You’ll have it made with that pairing!
If cooked properly, Flat Iron can be super flavorful and the second most tender cut, second to the tenderloin (tenderloin includes the Filet Mignon). It is considered a butcher cut due to the connective tissue running through it, and does benefit from marinating similar to a flank steak or skirt steak. The flavor does come from the significant amount of marbling throughout this cut. Ideally, pour yourself an older, balanced Cabernet that’s low on alcohol. The higher fat content of the steak will help integrate the wine on your palate and bring out some of the otherwise hidden baking spices in the Cabernet.
Alternatively, you can choose a structured, tannic Cabernet with a flat iron that has a wonderful charred crust. As with the other cuts of steak, the tannins will meld well with the char and the fat to create a perfect pairing that pulls the best from the wine and the steak. If charred, the flat iron is a steak that stand up to bigger styles of Cabernet. A very flavorful steak calls for a big bold, fruit forward Cab. Higher alcohol, younger Cabernet can also be tolerated, but you may find you get a bit of a sweet taste with this specific pairing.
A Few More Things to Keep in Mind…
The temperature of your steak also plays a part in your pairing. If you are someone who likes your steak well done, you will have cooked a good majority of the fat off. This means you may not need as many tannins to uphold against the fat that is no longer on your steak. On the contrary, a rarer steak needs a more structured wine to balance the flavors. The rareness will also soften the tannins in the wine, mellowing it out.
If you aren’t charring your steak, grilling, or BBQing as your method of cooking you may not need a wine with very much oak or barrel nuance to accentuate the lack of wood-grilled flavor in your cooked steak.
Lastly, seasoning your steak does play a part in your final pairing. The utmost simple seasoning of salt and pepper will always be the most versatile option. Adding a paprika, will offer some smokiness which may ask for smoke in your wine such as toasted oak barrel or nuttiness. And if you’re going to marinate or sauce your steak you will certainly need to account for these flavors as they could change your entire pairing. Anything spicy, as in heat, or hot peppers such as chilies would not pair well with a high alcohol wine. A high alcohol wine would intensify the heat in your spice rub. If you’re going to add something sweet or sugary to your marinade reach for a wine on the sweeter side to accompany the dish.
In the end, eat and drink what makes you happy and things that you enjoy. Have fun, experiment, and try to learn along the way what works, what doesn’t work, what you like, what you love, and maybe what you’re not so fond of.
Below is a list of some facts to help you when pairing your favorite steak with the perfect Cabernet Sauvignon. Hopefully you’ll have a bottle of First Avenue Vineyards on the table at your next meal!
Pairing Cheat Sheet
1. New York Strip is the most versatile cut of steak when pairing with different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon.
2. The texture of rich meats such as filet and rib eye are a good contrast to red wines with acidity.
3. Leaner cuts of beef pair best with leaner styles of Cabernet. For example a filet mignon wouldn’t do well with a high alcohol, tannic Cabernet.
4. Fattier cuts of steak pair well with big bold reds with plently of tannin. Tannin will cleanse the palate of fat and act as an astringent.
5. Super flavorful cuts such as a Rib Eye and butcher cuts (flank, hanger and flat iron) pair best with fruit forward, young Cabernet, with more tannin.
6. Older Cabernet with less tannin can create a food and wine pairing where the subtle fruit and spice flavors of the wine are elevated by the fat, peppery spice, and protein in more flavorful cuts like Rib Eye and Flat Iron. Comparatively, this older Cabernet pairing can be equally as enjoyable as a younger, tannic Cabernet pairing.
7. The most versatile Cabernet to pair with any steak is a balanced – young or old, low alcohol, solid acidity, and silky tannins.
8. High alcohol, bold Cabernet will often overpower the steak and make wine the focus within the pairing.
9. Grilling steak is a great method of cooking to assist with pairing with different styles of Cabernet. A thick chargrilled crust will pair with big bold Cabernet and conceal the taste of tannin. Grilling also complements notes of toasted oak that comes from the barrels in the Cabernet.
10. Ample amounts of pepper on your steak pair well with super structured less ripe Cabernet to bring the peppery, herbaceous notes out in the wine. This is due to the pyrazines (but pyrazines are for a whole other article entirely).