How does the cut and preparation of a steak change the best wine pairing? FIONA BECKETT and her son Will attempt to find common ground

When my son Will was born, I couldn’t have imagined that 30 years on we’d be sitting in his restaurant discussing food and wine matching. But as co-owner of an awardwinning, American-style steak house and cocktail bar, Hawksmoor, I had to concede that he and his restaurant manager Nick Strangeway were the ideal people to help me find the perfect steak wine. The plan was to gauge the impact of how the steak is cooked – rare, medium, well done – on the wine you choose. But Nick also insisted we see what effect different cuts make, which, fascinatingly, proved as significant as the cooking time. Will and I started, of course, from different standpoints: he being of the opinion that more mature, classic wines such as Bordeaux and Rioja were the best match for steak, while I favoured younger New World reds with firmer tannins. We both had cause to revise our views.

Fillet

The meat, sourced from the Ginger Pig, was from Longhorn cattle raised in North Yorkshire, so even a fillet was exceptionally full flavoured. But, its smooth, soft texture made it the subtlest of the steaks we tasted – ‘the kind of steak to serve with a salad for a light lunch,’ as Nick put it. I don’t normally think of Pinot Noir as a match for steak, but the best pairing by far, when the meat was cooked rare, was a classically silky, seductive Daniel Rion Vosne-Romanée, 2001. A 2002 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir from California proved slightly too sweet and worked better with a medium-rare fillet that had more caramelisation (this overwhelmed the Vosne-Romanée); the match was also good if you served the fillet with béarnaise sauce. The medium-rare went particularly well with the Supertuscan Guidalberto 2005, from Tenuta San Guido – again a beautifully balanced wine with a marked level of acidity, a much more important factor in matching fillet than tannin, at least when the meat is unsauced.

Bone-in Sirloin

Sirloin, in Nick’s view, is the ideal cut for serving blue because it has so much flavour of its own. So I thought our most tannic wine, a blockbuster Montus la Tyre 2005 Madiran from Alain Brumont would score. It was a fair match, but the barely cooked meat unbalanced the wine, making it slightly sweet, as did a Château la Nerthe 2003 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The outstanding matches were Ridge Monte Bello 2000 and Pichon-Longueville 2001, both still quite youthful, so the barely cooked meat had the effect of making them taste at their peak. These two wines also showed well with a mediumrare sirloin, as did a 1996 Château Saint-Pierre from St-Julien which surprisingly turned out to be one of the star wines of the tasting. We both found the Catena Alta Malbec 2004 and Turkey Flat Barossa Shiraz 2004 slightly too sweet.

Ribeye

Ribeye has more fat than other cuts so Nick advises his customers to go for a slightly longer cooking time. It makes for a juicier and more flavourful steak. When served rare it paired best with Champin Le Seigneur Côte-Rôtie 2003 from Jean- Michel Gerin and 2003 Collazzi Toscana (a ‘cut price Supertuscan’ according to Nick), which were both generous, ripe and full-bodied. Cooked medium-rare both those wines showed more youthful angularity; the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Catena Alta Malbec became the better matches. When it was medium to welldone, it changed again, tuning in with the riper, more fruit- driven wines from an inexpensive Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon (2004) to the Ridge Monte Bello. The Vosne-Romanée we’d enjoyed with the fillet, by contrast, didn’t taste remotely as good.

Hanger/bavette

Severely steaked out by this stage, we only tried one serving of hanger (served rare) just to see what the chewier texture of this French cut would do. We liked it best with two of the more inexpensive wines, a 2005 I Bastioni Chianti Classico and a gutsy Domaine de la Renjarde Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2004, the first for its acidity, the other for its rusticity.

Rules of thumb

This tasting was a real eye opener for both Will and I. Put simply, if you like your steak rare-to-lean, go for classic wines; whereas if you like it better done, go for riper, fruit driven ones. With fillet, try red Burgundy, other Pinot Noir or a modern Italian red, and with sirloin choose Cabernet or Merlot, especially Bordeaux. Ribeye goes best with a Châteauneuf, Côte-Rôtie or Tuscan red. Our most consistent bottles were the 1996 Château St-Pierre St-Julien (Will’s favourite), the Collazzi Toscana (Nick’s favourite) and the Ridge Monte Bello (mine). Catena Alta Malbec also showed well, though it wasn’t our favourite wine with any of the steaks. The much lauded Turkey Flat Barossa Shiraz 2004 tasted too simple and sweet with many steaks and the Rioja, a Marques de Vargas 2002, was also disappointing. The cheaper wines, while pleasant, were largely out of their league. It’s just not worth drinking minor wines with steak. At least that’s going to be our excuse from now on…

Written by Fiona Beckett