Many a steakhouse sommelier has been flummoxed by this somewhat common customer request: “I’d like you to recommend a wine. I like Cabs and Pinots.” And fair enough; Cabs (Cabernet Sauvignon) are often full-bodied, tannic, dark. Pinots (Pinot Noir) by contrast are often bright, acidic, terroir-driven. Notably, Pinot Noirs tend to be lighter in body than Cabs and not generally considered a go-to wine for a buttery ribeye.
That said, I have actually found a lot of sense in this seemingly paradoxical preference. Both “Pinots and Cabs” have name recognition and a large variety of each is readily found in any wine shop.
In addition, many styles of each varietal are available that will provide satisfaction for a drinker of new-world-style wines looking for rich fruit, spice, ample texture, and unambiguous character; all characteristics which suit a piece of meat.
Most importantly, though, one must consider that not all steak is created equal. Perhaps the customer once enjoyed a delicate filet served with mushroom sauce alongside a rich Burgundian Pinot. On another occasion, this same customer may have savored a crusted ribeye with a generously oaked Napa Cab. Both pairings will have been fully appropriate and, likely, brilliant.
In both instances, the customer will have made note that “I like this wine; I like this wine with steak”. The key when cooking or ordering steak, then, is not to pinpoint a “one size fits all” suggestion. Rather, by considering the cut and preparation of the steak alongside personal preference, one can find a myriad of options to accompany any bovine feast. Let’s consider steak and wine pairings by cut.
As previously mentioned, Pinot Noir can actually be a lovely pairing with this lighter cut of meat. True, some Pinots are lithe and delicate and will likely be overwhelmed by any red meat; however, there are many examples of Pinot that can easily stand up.
California produces many such examples: Pinots from Napa will be generally richer than those from Sonoma (Etude Wines are a good example). Even within cool Sonoma, plenty of full-bodied Pinots exist (try Kosta Browne and Marcassin). In the Burgundy region of France, regions such as Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin are known for their masculine, well-structured and rich Pinot Noirs—and are especially well-suited to savory and aromatic accompaniments such as mushrooms, truffles, and herbs.
New York Strip
(Rhône and Bordeaux blends). New York Strip is a cut of steak that is plenty rich, firmer in texture and a bit less fatty than a ribeye with a good bite. While this cut can surely hold up to the biggest wines, it does not require them—therefore New York Strip steak is a good opportunity to branch out into new styles of wine.
I particularly enjoy Rhône- and Bordeaux-style blends; these blends are created with several varieties of wine blended together to create prime balance. For example, the dark rich Syrah in a Rhône blend is complemented by the juicy red fruit of Grenache and perhaps even the aromatic lift of Viognier, a white variety. The bold, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon in a Bordeaux blend is complimented by lush, chewy merlot and earthy, aromatic Cabernet Franc.
The result is wines that are at once rich and balanced; smooth and structured; fruity and savory. Perfect for balancing the New York Strip. While many classic examples hail from the Rhône and Bordeaux regions of France themselves, California also produces some noteworthy blends. For Rhône blends look to Bonny Doon Vineyard, Lewis Cellars, and Tablas Creek. For Bordeaux blends check out Blackbird Vineyards, Justin, and Cenyth.
Flank Steak/Skirt Steak
These affordable cuts of meat are often cooked with a good char and served with a sauce. They are toothsome and rich without being overly fatty.
I love this opportunity to throw in a good Zinfandel—especially if the meat is prepared with any kind of spice. Zinfandel is a rich, chewy varietal that is full-bodied yet without the firm tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, which require a higher fat content to be softened on the palate. Its fruitiness will hold up to spice (dry wine intensifies and clashes with spice) and Zinfandel is usually generously oaked which will pick up any char on the meat (remember: oak loves smoke).
As a bonus, Zinfandel is usually less expensive than the other wines on this list, making it the perfect companion to these affordable cuts of meat. For ultra-rich, high-octane styles of Zinfandel check out Turley; for a more earthy, reserved style try Klinker Brick.
Finally, we get to the big daddy cut of steak. The ribeye is the richest cut with the highest fat content, and is known for its ample intramuscular marbling. The ribeye is the perfect opportunity to go full-on classic steakhouse.
If you are a die-hard “Cab Guy (or Girl)”, this is your cut. The high tannin content of Cabernet Sauvignon melts together with the fatty beef—helping to cut through the richness. The full body of a classic Cab will never get lost against a hearty meal, and the high acid of the wine helps to cleanse the palate. Like the ribeye, Cabernet Sauvignon is turned to high volume on all fronts. This will not be a subtle meal, but is sure to satisfy.
To stay super-classic, Napa provides plenty of Cabs to choose from: For a splurge, Diamond Creek will get you the best Cab around. If you seek ultra-lush fruit, look for O’Shaughnessy. To enjoy an old-school winery which produced Napa’s first vineyard-designated wine, try Heitz Cellar.