When trying to decide what wines go well with beef, most people think of the rule "Red wine with red meat, white wine with everything else". While sometimes true, this is a very simplistic view, much like "What goes up, must come down". It is not the 'coming down' part that concerns us. It is all about how it comes down.
We can start with the postulant that there are no absolutes in culinary art. There are no completely right, or completely wrong combinations. You could serve light, crisp Chablis with a grilled sirloin steak, and it will still be edible, and not unpleasant. Nevertheless, what we are really after is an optimization of flavors and nuances. This is a little trickier, and calls for some knowledge, experience, and some artistic flair. A lot of the choice depends on your personal preferences. My preferences will most likely not be exactly like yours. Vive la difference.
Hearty red meats, in my opinion, absolutely require dry red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux), Pinot Noir (Burgundy), and Syrah-based Rhone wines are classic for beef, and any of the overseas equivalents from the US, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Central and South America, or other places will work well. Other good choices are the big reds from Tuscany and Pie Monte in Italy, Barolo, Brunello, and Chianti. Some of the more robust American reds, like Petit Syrah, and Charbono are also good choices.
It helps a lot to know the defining characteristics of each major type of red wine, to give you a starting place:
- Cabernet Sauvignon-medium to full-bodied, very tannic and dry. The tannins mellow with age.
- Merlot-medium to full body, slightly less tannic than Cabernet, very dry.
- Zinfandel-medium to full body (but lighter styles are also made) and very dry.
- Pinot Noir-medium to light, dry with little tannin. This is a red, but only suitable for very rare roast beef, and veal.
There are many variations within these types, so experimentation is helpful. When you find one that is particularly pleasing, make a note of it.
It also helps to understand the nuances of different types of beef dishes:
- Single-serving grilled meats, such ad steak, fillets, and kabobs-these meats have a heavy char, and characteristic bitterness to them that goes well with young, high tannin wines.
- Roasted meat has-a more refined, delicate taste that compliments well-aged wines.
- Rare meat-has a sweeter, stronger flavor that can stomp on mellow aged wines. The rarer the meat, the younger the wine.
- Well-Done meat-has a more balanced flavor that will blend with older, more complex wines. The more well-done the meat, the older the wine.
- Meats with more fat, like hamburger-need to be paired with more acidic wines, to balance the flavors.
There are some guidelines that cover a wide range of tastes:
- For very young wines, cook your beef rarer than you might normally. The extra fat and less char will help tame the tannins in a young red.
- With aged red wines, cook the beef more well done. Rare beef can overwhelm the subtle nuances present in a well-aged red.
- Veal may be beef in theory, but it reacts like white meat to your taste buds. You need a Sirah, or Pinot Noir with little tannins, to properly compliment this dish.
- Grilled meats, like steak and fillets, have much more char on them. These are best with young reds, where the extra tannins offset the smoky char taste.
- Roasts, and tenderloins have a more refined, cultured taste to them, that goes well with the subtle nuances of a well-aged red vintage.
- For spicy stews, and ethnic dishes such as Steak Ranchero, Tacos al Carbon, Cantonese or Mongolian Beef, pair them with zippier Syrah based wines.
Some dishes are especially problematic, due to the deep complexity of their flavors, and aromas. Chili is the most difficult dishes I know of to pair with wine. You'd think any strong red would work, but you would be wrong. Chili is especially hard on Syrah-based wines. The flavors in chili emphasize the oakiness in Syrah, making the combined flavor reminiscent of nougat….yuck! Others, like Cotes-du-Rhone, will taste too hot and unpleasantly heavy. The best wines I have found for chili are Cabernet Sauvignons, especially from Central and South America, Sonoma Valley Zinfandels, and Argentina Malbec.
Another one that messes up all the rules is pot roast. If you cooked it like I do much of the time, with carrots, celery and potatoes, together in the same pot with the beef, the carrot and celery flavors will come to the top. In this case, a full flavored California Chardonnay will accent all the vegetable and meat flavors nicely.
Many complex-flavored beef dishes, like Vietnamese Pho Tai can be as difficult as chili to match. Pho Tai is a spicy beef noodle soup popular in Thailand, and Vietnam (and my house). It has notes of lemongrass, mint, cilantro, hot peppers, and fresh lime. Most red wines do not fair well, but surprisingly, a good Riesling can save the day. Also, I've found that a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc perfectly accents all the different flavors and aromas.
Asian and Mexican cuisines turn the rules on their heads sometimes. With hot spicy dishes, try lower alcohol, sweeter wines. Rieslings are a good fall back with spicy ethnic dishes. For some reason, Rieslings always seem to tame unruly flavors, and make them all work together. That is a big job for a white wine, but it does it with style.
It will take a lot of experimentation to get the perfect combinations you are looking for, but getting there is half the fun. With a little patience, practice and time, you will soon become an expert on what wines go well with beef.