Can I pair white wine with steak?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is a good white wine to pair with a steak?

—Sharon, Milwaukee, Wisc.

Dear Sharon,

First let me get my thoughts on food-and-wine pairing out of the way. The old adage “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” was useful because it was easy to remember, and invented in a time when the world of wine was a lot smaller and there were not nearly as many influences in our cuisine as there are now. The new gospel is “drink what you like and eat what you like,” and I’m a true believer. I’ll go a step beyond that and say the most important thing you are pairing is whom you chose to share a meal with.

I think of food-and-wine pairing as existing on a spectrum. On the one end are the truly magical pairings—Champagne and caviar; Barolo and white truffles; foie gras and Sauternes. These pairings end up elevating both halves of the equation and are truly memorable. On the other end of the spectrum are also memorable pairings, but in a bad way. I call them the orange juice and toothpaste of pairings, where things just clash, like oily fishes with red wines and the metallic aftertaste that creates.

For most of us, most of the time, if we’re drinking what we love and eating what we like, our pairings will fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Some wine pairings might work better than others, especially if they balance in intensity, and either match or contrast the flavors of food.

A hearty red wine with a steak can be pretty magical. A red wine’s tannins can seem drying on their own, but paired with a rich steak, suddenly the fat in the meat smooths everything out. Plus, both steak and bold red wine can be intense in flavor and stand up to each other.

That’s a harder order for a white wine to fill, but before you pick out your wine, keep in mind how the steak is prepared and if there’s going to be a sauce on the side. A steak can be cooked on an open fire, or sautéed with butter, served Tuscan style with rosemary and a squirt of lemon, or served with a béarnaise sauce on the side. I might pick a different wine for each of those scenarios.

So what white wines might work? I’d suggest a full-bodied (and oaky) Chardonnay, Viognier or Marsanne. A mature white Rioja, or even an older Riesling might work. And I love Champagne or sparkling wines with steak (and especially steak tartare).

—Dr. Vinny

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