January 19, 2005
Serving steak? Time to beef up your wine
In a few weeks, our quarter of a cow will come in, giving my partner and me more than enough beef for the winter. We look forward to the day with a mixture of glee and terror—the question of how exactly to devour 70-some pounds of beef in the next nine months tempers the feel-good vibes of supporting a local farm and knowing that Joey the cow was a happy animal. But glee outweighs terror for wine geeks like me, because beef provides an excuse to pull out the brawniest red wines I can find.
Now, there’s no rule that prohibits drinking white wine with beef, but the only time it’s really worked for me was when the beef was poached in it. And who poaches red meat? Poaching is for fish, chicken, light meats that want to be handled delicately. Beef requires manhandling: steaks want a searing hot grill, while beef strips want a wok so hot they’ll sizzle. Large chunks require roasting for hours until the slice like butter, and ribs, shoulders, and assorted bits desire cooking until meat melts from bones. These aren’t techniques for the faint of heart, and the results aren’t for wines faint of flavor.
There’s another thing, not quite as evocative but possibly more important: hearty red wines get their robustness not only from loads of flavor, but also from tannin. That’s the stuff that makes your tongue feel like it’s been wrapped in cotton. It’s not pleasant, but it’s avoidable: tannin binds to protein, so to keep a wine’s tannins to bind to your tongue, offer them something else, like a chunk of beef. Then your tongue can take in the flavor of the beef and remain unscathed.
So when my cow comes in, I’ll put aside the gauzy, gorgeous Pinot Noirs and the soft-and-soupy Merlots and seek out the sorts of wines that strike fear in delicate mouths, those critics call “rustic,” “unpolished,” or even crude. Just because they don’t make it on many “10 Best” lists, though, doesn’t mean they are bad. It just means they are misunderstood without a hearty stew or steak by their side.
Try, for instance, the wines of Southwest France, as swashbuckling as Dumas’ Three Musketeers. There, you’ll find the famously “black wines” of Cahors, which are indeed black and taste a bit like plums made of iron. They tend not to make the most pleasant drinking on their own, but try one next to a fennel-infused beef stew, and the hardness will be drowned out by the delicious that gets drawn out by the combination.
Or look for Madiran, grown in the rocky foothills of the Pyrennes and made from Tannat. The grape’s name sounds a lot like “tannic”, and rightfully so: the tannins of this dense, black-fruited wine will make short work of roast beef, complete with its protective ring of juicy, charred fat. Add blue-cheese mashed potatoes if you like; Madiran can take it.
Irouléguy, made not far away on the Atlantic coast, looks far less intimidating, but don’t be deceived by the light color: these wines have the tannin and acidity to wring the juices out of a 16-ounce T-bone without a blink.
Francophobes might prefer to explore Portugal, where there are grapes with names like “esgana cao”, which means “dog-strangler.” Most Portuguese reds have sharper edges that anything we’re used to drinking the in the US, which makes them perfect for cutting through unctuous braises and thick, char-edged steaks. Look particularly for wines from Beiras (Luis Pato is the star vintner there) and Bairrada.
Italy offers its own array of intimidatingly-named grapes, like Schioppettino, which means “gunshot” and can feel like the same when it’s young and drunk on its own, as well as “Tazzelenghe,” which translates as tongue-cutter, for reasons made obvious with the first sip. Both, however, can be delicious with the sort of stick-to-your-ribs wintery ragús and braises of Friuili, their homeland, in Northeastern Italy.
These are obscure wines in this country, to be sure, but don’t be intimidated: if you don’t like a wine, you can always use it as the liquid in your next beef braise. But when patience and sources run short, there’s always California, which grows some of the beefiest Cabernet Sauvignon around, especially in the hot, jagged mountains of Napa. The good stuff tends to be a bit of a splurge, but go for it: whether or not you know your cow by name, beef is no time to hold back.
This article first appeared in the Denver Post.