Go ahead: Live a little.
We’ve all heard it before—in fact, there are few more deeply ingrained “rules” when it comes to pairing wine and food: Red wine goes with beef and white wine complements fish. That’s usually true as far as it goes, but it is certainly incomplete advice. Because here’s the thing: There are plenty of reds that work with fish and seafood, and they aren’t your only option when it comes to opening a bottle to sip alongside a ribeye or a filet.
“I think that this is a particularly fascinating topic,” Anthony Vietri, farmer and proprietor at the excellent Va La Vineyards in Avondale, Pennsylvania, told me in an email. “I have to laugh because this is a bit of a guilty pleasure for us, and not something that we talk about very often to our guests, as most folks are not really used to the concept.”
But it’s one that he believes in, and justifiably so. He thinks whites made with skin contact, which are a Va La specialty, are more versatile than your traditional whites. "It just seems to open up a whole new world of food pairings.
Vietri is not alone. Master Sommelier Jack Mason, of Texas-based Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, is also a fan of the unjustifiably taboo pairing. Above all else, he aims to match the texture and weight of a given varietal with the rich quality of a piece of steak. “A great example of this would be to take a naturally oily, unctuous white wine, such as a Hermitage Blanc…and pair it with a rich, fatty cut of beef, such as a ribeye. The round, weighty texture of the wine plays to the richness of the steak, creating harmony between the extremes of power of both the steak and the wine.”
He continued, “On the other end of the spectrum, I like to use naturally leaner-textured white varieties made in a powerful style, like a Grosses Gewächs Riesling from the Pfalz or a dry Chenin Blanc from Savennières, to pair with a leaner style of steak, such as a filet mignon. Leaner grapes given richness by increased ripeness (and therefore alcohol), lees work, and/or oak help to create a wine that finds [a] balance of freshness and power, which are then able to stand in equality with lean, tender red meat.”
Vietri has a similarly incisive view on these pairings. “First, for me, the unique combination of texture and weight, combined with the spicy flavors and good acidity, are the keys that allow skin-fermented whites to pair well with beef,” he explained.
He also believes whites work when the piece of meat is grilled and presented simply, without a heavy sauce. "The caramelization effect often seen in a perfectly grilled piece of beef can just seem to sing with a similar character in the skin-contact whites.”
He warns, however, that these kinds of pairings do best when the meat is cooked medium rare or less. "If the meat is to be well done, or blackened, or smoked, not so much.” Too much char on the beef, he says, makes it difficult for a balanced pairing.
Vietri recommends white wines like his with raw beef dishes, like carpaccio with olive oil and lemon juice. Indeed, a range of bright white wines, not just skin-contact examples, could work with a dish like that. And Mason finds that barrel-aged Chardonnay, given the diversity of styles in which it can be produced, is often a great go-to for pairing with beef. “Oaked Chardonnay, which can be made in a range of weights all the way from a medium-bodied White Burgundy all the way to an opulent, full-bodied example from California, is a perfect variety to pair with steak…suitable for any cut,” he noted.
The moral here seems pretty straightforward: Break the rules when it comes to enjoying wine with beef. Doing so could lead to some of the most exciting and unexpected pairings you’ve ever tasted.