I read an article in the NY Times a few days ago about a winery in Lebanon called Chateau Musar. My local wine store recommended one of their wines a few weeks ago so I was drawn to this article. One of the interesting things I noted was the order in which the Musar wines were served at a dinner recently held in NYC. The reds were served before the whites, which is very unusual. “Once you taste the wines, you’ll understand why my white is my biggest red,” the winemaker stated. The dinner paired the white with quail, which I don’t eat often, but would estimate is similar to chicken and can be prepared to match red or white wines. This did make me rethink the traditional notion that whites are served with the lighter starter courses before moving on to the star attractions, which are enjoyed with red wines.
This article reminded me of a suggestion made by one of my favorite wine bloggers, Joanie from ItalianWineGeek, about unconventional pairings. She suggested serving Flank Steak with Sauvignon Blanc, which flies in the face of the traditional red-with-steak-at-all-times superstition. I have personally enjoyed many, many steaks with red wine and I agree, it is a great combination. But does a rich and full-bodied white wine also pair well with steak? This seemed like a great assignment for me to investigate.
The market research geek in me set this up as an experiment where I attempted to control all variables except the color of the wine. I selected two wines made by the same winemaker, from grapes grown in generally the same area, and of high enough quality that the experiment would not be ruined by junky wine. And secretly this was a great excuse to open two bottles of Far Niente, which is one of my favorite Napa wineries. Instead of Sauvignon Blanc though I paired the steak with their Chardonnay. And in an effort to give the Chardonnay a chance, I thought it prudent to add some butter to the steak after I took it off the grill because butter and Chardonnay are such good friends. The Far Niente Cabernet is a steak house favorite so the competition was going to be tough.
I also had some scallops on hand so I decided that while I had these amazing bottles open, I would investigate what happens when you pair a traditional “white wine food” like delicate scallops with a full-bodied red like Cabernet? Would the wine drown out the light flavors of this lovely shellfish?
OK, first things first. Both of these wines are insanely delicious. The Chardonnay is perfectly balanced; a little rich, a little acidic, a little creamy, a hint of oak. Not too much of any one thing and the true Chardonnay essence really shines through. The Cabernet is a full bodied and decadent wine. A little earthy, some spiciness, and after a few years of aging, wonderfully smooth with velvety tannins. Honestly, you could pair both of these wines with oven roasted cardboard and they would still taste good.
I prepared a basic marinade for the steak using olive oil, tamari, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic and onion. I was stingy on the amount of marinade because I did not want to overpower the natural flavors of the steak. After grilling, I let the steak rest with a nice dollop of butter on top, melting to perfection.
Both of the wines went really nicely with the steak. The Chardonnay let the flavor of the steak shine and simply provided a creamy and tangy backdrop to enhance the flavors. If I were to make a steak salad with a lemon juice based dressing, this wine would be a perfect match. I was really surprised at how nicely the steak went with this lovely white.
The Cabernet and the steak were a great combo but the wine dominated the flavors. This was not a surprise but it was interesting to experience the wine as the star vs. with the white where the steak was the dominant flavor. Had I prepared a rich and savory mushroom-based sauce for the steak, I would bet that the Cabernet would continue to shine yet it would enhance the earthiness of the mushroom-based umami flavors.
The scallops were a great match for the Chardonnay. The flavors in this dish were very subtle and enhanced by the white. I pan seared the scallops and then made a reduction sauce with white wine and tomato sauce. After I plated the scallops, I squeezed lemon juice over the top. The result was a tart and tangy but mellow sauce that allowed the scallop flavors to come through.
The Cabernet was way too powerful for the scallops. When I tried them together, all I tasted was the wine. That was not a bad thing as I really love the Far Niente Cab, however, if I had wanted the scallops to be the star, this wine made that difficult.
I learned two big lessons in this experiment. First, I understand why restaurants and sommeliers love white wines. They want the food to be the star, and many whites are great at enhancing the flavors in food, from creamy cheeses to delicate seafood to steak. Full bodied red wines can overpower some of these types of dishes. Second, when thinking about pairing food and wine you may need to decide what you want to be the star; the food OR the wine. While the Chardonnay was great, it was not the star once food was introduced even though it was a lovely accompaniment to the various dishes. A Cabernet of this caliber is going to naturally stand out so a really savory and rich dish like braised short ribs would be needed if you wanted the food to be the dominant set of flavors.
Back to my original question: Paring Steak with Chardonnay: Delicious or Blasphemy? I absolutely think it was a delicious combination. The next time I want to prepare a perfect summer evening meal for dining al fresco, I will make a grilled steak salad with fresh goat cheese and local tomatoes and enjoy it with a glass of Chardonnay. However, in the middle of winter when I want to dine on steak with macaroni and cheese and roasted butternut squash in front of the fire place, the warmth and richness of the Cabernet will enhance the meal wonderfully.