Picking a wine to go with steak ought to be the simplest of tasks. After all, it's plain red meat. What could go wrong?
In truth, not much can get in the way. But various red wines can turn in different directions, depending on how the steak is done and how it's seasoned or dressed.
This comes to mind as the waiter delivers three different steaks, nicely sliced for tasting, to me and my guest, Veronique Drouhin, who is responsible for Domaine Drouhin Oregon. We are at Stripsteak, Michael Mina's new steak house, and Bernabe de Luna, the sommelier, pours several glasses of wine to try with the steaks.
Oh, the work never ends.
First in the row of four glasses is Domaine Drouhin's Cuvée Laurene 2004, which has the winery's signature velvety texture, refined tannins and pretty black fruit flavors.
Wine No. 2 is Jamet Côte-Rôtie 1997, which has reached that stage of maturity when the wine gets silky and starts oozing with meaty, dusky character as a core of generous cherry and plum continues to pulse underneath.
No. 3, Altare Barolo 1999, buries the Langhe's normally gritty tannins under plush raspberry and black plum fruit, coming off as pollished and generous. The finish just keeps on giving. It's my favorite wine on the table.
And No. 4, Francis Coppola's Rubicon 2002, has Napa Valley's signature currant and earthy, slightly herbal flavors, on a frame that manages to deliver the flavors without excess weight.
In front of us, slices of a bone-in Kansas City Strip, a skirt steak from American Kobe-style beef and a corn-fed rib cap await tasting, their ruby centers confirming their medium-rare status. The KC is just a New York steak with the bone in. The skirt steak, normally the fare of steak frites in a French bistro, has some extra going for it by being from a superprime Wagyu animal. And the rib cap is that flap that goes around the prime rib and has a distinctive, rich texture. All were cooked using Mina's method of poaching the meat first in butter to the extra-rare stage, then finishing it over a wood fire.
The resulting meat is supertender without losing that toothsome juiciness, and the short visit to the wood fire adds the right note of smokiness—just a hint.
So how do the wines do? Without any sauces (and these pieces of meat need nothing extra) the Côte-Rôtie jumps out of the glass, flashing more fruit, more spice, and polishing its texture even more after a bite of meat. It is the clear winner. The Pinot and the Cabernet hold their own, showing all their charms, but they don't gain as much as the Rhône red. The meat, juicy and rare though it is, makes the Barolo feel tougher, alas. There's a reason they drink Barolo in Italy with braised meat or lamb.
Adding any of the side sauces only accentuates any effects with the wines. The Rhône wins.
Actually, the skirt steak, which has the densest, meatiest flavor, does bring out the fruit in the Barolo. In fact, the skirt is our favorite of the three options, and the only steak that's also great with all the wines. (It's also the least expensive on the menu; good luck, that.)
But then, the rib cap is a perfect meld with the Rubicon, which underlines the bottom line: you can't go too far wrong with any good red with a great steak.