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Pairing Beef with Red Wine

Which red wine goes well with prime rib, roast tenderloin, or beef stew? Find out here.

Fine Cooking Issue 62
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Photo: Scott Phillips
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Winter is the season when you might be considering prime rib, roast tenderloin, or another special beef recipe for a holiday dinner. Or maybe the cold weather has you craving a long-simmering beef stew. And most likely, you’ll be thinking of serving red wine with that beef. But which red? There are definitely some that work better than others, depending on the dish, but the good news is that you have plenty of flexibility. Here’s how to make great matches.

Tannins and protein, a mutual attraction

Red wine tastes good with beef because of the interplay between the tannins in the wine and the protein in the meat. Tannins are compounds found in all red wines, and they come mostly from the grapes’ skins and seeds, as well as from the barrels in which the wine was aged. They give red wine aging potential and are an essential part of a wine’s structure and balance.  

By itself, a tannic wine can feel rough and astringent (imagine tea steeped too long). But as soon as tannins become bound to protein, everything changes. A glass of young, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t the greatest choice to linger over before dinner, but take a sip after a bite of seared filet, and you’ve got a mouthwatering combination.

When serving an older vintage, keep the dish as simple as possible (think roast tenderloin) to avoid overwhelming the wine.

Grilled meat can handle brawny wine

The cut of meat and its flavoring can have more of an impact on the pairing than does the cooking method. But grilled beef is an exception—it’s different from seared or roasted meat because it packs more intense flavor. Balance the grill’s intensity by serving a rich, tannic red. There are lots to choose from: Australian Shiraz and California Zinfandel are two of my favorites, especially with a grilled New York strip.

• Rosemount Estate Shiraz-Cabernet
• Greg Norman Shiraz, Limestone Coast
• Seghesio “Old Vines” Zinfandel, Sonoma

Stay away from sweet or fruity flavorings with beef—their sweetness will flatten the flavors of a dry red wine.

Let the cut of meat guide you

Leaner cuts like filet do best with aged reds or wines that are less tannic. Richer cuts with a higher fat content, like a rib-eye steak, can stand up to a more concentrated and tannic red.

Roast tenderloin is a lean cut, so it’s a perfect companion for a red whose tannins have softened a bit from aging. Bordeaux is a great choice, as are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from California or Australia. And don’t overlook Spain or Italy.

• Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon, California
• El Coto “Coto de Imaz” Reserva Rioja, Spain
• Melini “La Selvanella” Chianti Classico, Italy
• Château au Pont de Guitres, Lalande de Pomerol, Bordeaux

Prime rib is richer, and it’s delicious served with a younger or more tannic Barbera or Cabernet-based wine or a more robust Merlot, Bordeaux, or Bordeaux-style blend.

• Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon, California
• Revello Barbera d’Alba
• Casa Lapostolle Merlot “Cuvee Alexandre,” Chile
• Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac

Pan-seared filet is great paired with a moderately tannic red like Merlot or a medium- weight Australian Shiraz. The fruit in these wines is lovely with the filet’s browned, caramelized crust, and their tannins won’t overwhelm a lean cut of meat.

• Blackstone Merlot, California
• d’Arenberg Shiraz “Footbolt,” McLaren Vale, Australia
• Columbia Valley Seven Hills Merlot, Washington

Brisket, short ribs and other stew meats are usually cooked slowly for a long time. The sinewy cuts break down and take on big, rich flavor. I like Rhône blends —the robust tannins, herbal notes, and earthiness of young Grenache-based wines like Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas work beautifully with the rich flavors.

• Domaine de la Mordorée Côtes du Rhône
• Mon Coeur Côtes du Rhône
• Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape

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