The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


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Porterhouse rules

What's the best wine for grilled steak?

by Thor Iverson

There's a smell wafting across New England, and it's not whatever the Big Dig has accidentally uncovered. Summer is grilling time, and for unrepentant

carnivores that means beef. This might mean slow-smoked barbecued ribs, or complex marinades and dry rubs, but most often it's just a slab of steak, dusted with salt and pepper and slapped on the grill. It's one of the simplest and most delicious meals you can make, one with counterparts in most of the world's culinary traditions, and it's a staple of warm-weather dining.

Grilling a steak is easy, and picking a wine to match should be just as easy. So we here at "Uncorked" have done the work for you. Our crack laboratory staff (me) used the latest technology (Weber Kettle, charcoal, matches) and the finest ingredients (beef, salt, pepper) in the ultimate food-and-wine-pairing experiment. And now, with the help of our vast marketing budget and a team of media consultants, we're prepared to reveal the results of this experiment to the world.

We went in with some preconceptions. Zinfandel -- fruity, spicy, wild -- has always been our go-to wine on grilling nights. On the other hand, conventional wisdom suggests that cabernet sauvignon, half of the classic "cab 'n' cow" pairing, is the prime choice (pardon the pun). Holding tradition's feet to the glowing coals, we lined up a bunch of wines from different grapes, countries, and hemispheres, and tasted them blind with grilled steak.

First up, and first to be eliminated from consideration, was merlot. We tried Californian, Chilean, and Australian examples, but in each case the wine cowered in a corner when faced with the rich flavor of charred steak. Removing the char from the meat induced the Chilean wine to become a little more assertive, but what's the point of grilled steak without the char?

Given Argentina's national obsession with cattle, its signature red wine (made from malbec) was an obvious contender. It was more than a bit of a surprise, then, that the wine seemed to clash with the beef, developing unpleasant flavors it didn't otherwise possess. The only good match seemed to be with extremely rare (nearly raw) beef; fine here at "Uncorked," but definitely not to everyone's taste.

Staying south of the equator, we sampled Aussie shiraz. There are two diverging styles of shiraz these days: an explosively fruity, easy-drinking style, and a heavy, tannic, opaque, almost unbelievably over-oaked style that has proved very popular on the international market. We tried both. Predictably, the glitzy Vegas showgirl version obliterated everything but the strongest char on the meat. The easy-drinking version was okay, but unexciting; what it needed was some non-fruit flavors.

For that, we took the same grape in a different form: syrah from California. Now we're talking! The added herb and earth flavors were a nice match with the steak, though over-oaking was also a problem for some wines. Going to the syrah source (France's Rhône Valley) was a mixed bag, as it seemed that the herb/earth character was almost too complex for a simple steak. (And indeed, tricking up the preparation with some Provençal ingredients improved the match.)

Pinot noir was a failure; both brawny Californians and more elegant Oregon and Burgundy versions seemed sweet and candied next to the rough-hewn beef. Nebbiolo, in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco from Italy's Piedmont region, was a horrid match: its tar-like tannins were enhanced by the charred beef, while its significant acidity was unduly emphasized (though well-aged nebbiolo and beef are a completely different story). Tuscan reds, on the other hand, did quite well, and the best matches were bruisers such as Chianti Classico Riserva, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Perhaps the most surprising mismatch of all was cabernet sauvignon. No matter what its region of origin, whatever complexity the wine possessed was obliterated by the beef. The lesson: it's not worth dropping serious bucks on a killer cab for killer cow, when a cheap-but-good quaffer will work just as well.

So that brings us back to zinfandel, our undisputed winner. Both light, fruity zins and big, tannic zins just exploded with flavor when matched with grilled steak. This is truly one of those matches where wine and food enhance each other, and we here at the "Uncorked" labs are convinced. We'll continue to reach for the zin every time we reach for the Weber.

All this said, what did we drink while grilling? Beer, of course. It's not good to mess with tradition.

Some beefy wines:

Terre del Cedro 1997 Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore "Aulente" ($20). This wine is a product of the fascinating San Patrignano community in Emilia-Romagna, a private haven for recovering substance abusers seeking to work their way back to health and productivity. Independent of that fact, this is one killer sangiovese. Shot through with strawberries, it's structured yet full-bodied, and has the chops to age more than a few years.

Selby 1997 Syrah Sonoma ($20). All the big fruit one expects from California, but with an interesting smoky oak undertone, and surprisingly elegant and soft. Drink this one young.

Dashe Cellars 1998 Zinfandel Alexander Valley "Todd Vineyard" ($22). Spicy blackberries, with a strong backbone and a serious, brooding side that needs five years to mellow. This is bullish zin in the Ridge style, and it will reward those with a little patience. If you're going to drink it now, decant it 24 hours in

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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