I wonder if the same purists who decry wines that show too much oak feel the same way about their steaks. That came to mind as I interviewed Tom Colicchio, the chef and owner of Craftsteak in New York and Las Vegas, whose cooking methods for beef have generated some flack.
In essence, steak lovers who like their ribeyes and New York strips encased in a layer of distinct char grump about Colicchio's insistence on pan-grilling his steaks. New York reviewers were savage when he opened the local branch at the edge of the city's trendy Meatpacking District last year. "Where's the char?" they demanded.
Colicchio offers grass-fed beef from Hawaii, traditional American corn-fed beef from California and the midwest, and highly marbled, texturally distinct wagyu beef from Idaho and Japan. He says he prefers a non-char approach, so that an eater can appreciate the subtle differences among these different meat sources.
Sound familiar? It's the same argument the anti-oak crowd advances to encourage vintners not to cover the subtle flavors of the grape sources (i.e., terroir) with the creamy, smoky taste of the oak barrels they could use for aging. Most of the world's great and near-great red wines spend time in oak barrels to round them out. If a significant portion of that oak is new, it marks the wine with its flavor and some of its tannins.
The argument, in my view, centers on what effect these barrel flavors have on the aromas and flavors that a grapegrowing site can impart to a wine. The anti-oak crowd believes oak obscures these nuances, like thick make-up on a pretty face. The pro-oak crowd finds the under-oaked wines wan, incomplete.
For the record, I like the taste of oak, as long as I can still taste the other elements that make a wine special. And if there's enough from the fruit to make the wine special, I don't miss the oak after a while. Like everything in wine, it's all about balance.
See the parallel? We expect some level of char on a steak to contrast with the red (or pink), juicy interior, and we feel as if something is missing if it's not there. We expect oak character in wine, to enhance the fruit and other flavors, and it can feel incomplete without it.
I wonder, too, if char on the steak affects the oak in the wine we drink with it.
In visits to several steak houses in New York last week, I tried a range of wines with steaks that had different levels of char. With the high-char steaks at Kobe Club, Coppola's Edizione Pennino Zinfandel from Napa Valley brimmed with black fruit flavors and picked up a mocha note with the steaks' prominent blackened exterior. With a medium-char skirt steak at BLT Steak, Bergström Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills in Oregon also flaunted its fruit character, the tannins and oak component melting away. Somewhere in the middle (in terms of char), the porterhouse at Porter House New York polished up the tannins in a Buty Syrah from Washington, and let the black fruit, mineral and gamy flavors emerge unscathed.
Colicchio's char-free steaks cozied up best with a big, soft, fruit-forward Jean Benegas Malbec from Argentina, a wine with very little oak presence. Without the char, the steaks tended to bring out the herbal elements in a Bordeaux and Washington Cabernet, and an Australian Shiraz picked up a peppery note. All very nice and subtle, but it lacked the drama and sheer hedonism of the big fruit that comes out when char and oak cancel each other out.
Dan Jaworek — Chicago — March 27, 2007 1:47pm ET
William Newell — Buffalo, NY — March 27, 2007 4:07pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — March 28, 2007 1:16pm ET
James Molesworth — March 28, 2007 4:28pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 28, 2007 4:45pm ET
Travis G Snyder — Salt Lake City — March 29, 2007 1:36am ET
J E Shuey — Dallas, TX — March 29, 2007 8:48am ET
William Newell — Buffalo, NY — March 29, 2007 10:49am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions