Choosing a suitable wine to go with your meal is a complex affair these days. International foods and wines are intermingling so freely, that the old maxim of “red goes with red meat and white goes with fish” doesn’t work so well anymore. After all, how do you categorize `meat’ when it could be anything from a classic Boeuf Bourguignon to a pepper-crusted Wagyu steak? How closely could a panko-fried haddock possibly be related to a Japanese Kingfish tartare in their taste profile?
We spoke to Chris Lara, Wine Director at John Howie Steak (JHS) to learn a few pro tips on food and wine pairing. And how he interprets the food menu at JHS with suitable wines from his impressive, 60-page wine list.
“Pairing wine with your food brings a harmony to the dish,” he says. “And when you’re choosing a wine that will match or complement or even contrast the dish, you’re opening both up to their fullest potential and enjoying a much fuller experience.”
Here are some suggestions from Chris Lara that pairing enthusiasts will love to know:
• The main thing to take into account is the weight of the dish and the weight of the wine. If you’re having a very light salad that has a lot of brightness behind it, you don’t necessarily want to choose a very heavy red. When you’re having a grilled steak with a lot of dark, smoky flavors, you don’t want a super light, refreshing white or a light red. You want something that will match its depth and power.
• Contrasting flavors (sweet and spicy is a classic example) also works exceedingly well. The sweetness cuts the spice, so when you’re having a spicy dish, a good beer or a nice Riesling with some residual sugar behind it will work phenomenally because you’re balancing the two out.
• Sour and sweet play well together as well. A sweet dish can become multi-faceted when paired with a bright, sour wine.
• But if something is too sweet, you can match the sweetness instead of trying to contrast it. For example, a dessert that is laden with sugar can be paired with a dessert wine with matching sweetness and depth. Something too sour, too bright or too acidic may also work, but there’s a good chance that it will get lost because of all the sugar coating the mouth.
• Chocolate and wine is a pairing that people often argue about — whether they really go well with each other. In my opinion, chocolate and normal wine don’t necessarily go well together because chocolate coats your mouth so heavily that it is hard to break through the barrier. The one thing thatdoesbreak through, however, is port wine. The fortified dessert wine from Portugal has enough sugar and alcohol to cut through all the richness of chocolate.
There are some red wines, however, that may work with chocolates because they have a lot of alcohol and some residual sugar. A few Shirazs from Australia, for example, that have the necessary depth and richness. I’d say a Grenache or a Zinfandel from an area that is very warm. But generally speaking, a nice Cabernet from Washington state or from Bordeaux, is going to get totally lost behind the chocolate.
PAIRING SUGGESTIONS FROM THE JOHN HOWIE STEAK MENU
# 1: Filet Mignon
A Filet Mignon is a lean and very tender cut of meat, but it doesn’t have a lot of rich flavor or fat to it. All these things tell me that I don’t necessarily want a big red wine to go with it. I actually want something a little more elegant and layered as opposed to just heavy and rich. Something like a Pinot Noir or a beautiful Italian Tuscan blend.
# 2: Rib-Eye
A great piece of Rib-Eye just cries for a really big wine. Like something full and rich from California or a big Cabernet from Washington or a Shiraz from Australia. These just love good, red meat. Also, the tannins in red wine play well with the protein in the dish, so they balance each other out.
# 3: Wagyu
Full-blooded Wagyu from the Miyazaki Prefecture – some of the best beef in the world is what this is. With something so precious you want to have a wine that matches it’s rich prestige.
One wine that I wish we actually sold more of here at John Howie Steak is a Barolo. A big Barolo with so much grippy tannins and grippy acidity that it feels like it’s going to take your face off. Like a Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco. Or a Brunello di Montalcino.
These are just gorgeous wines that are not always top-of-the-mind in American steakhouses. Everyone wants a California cab or a Washington cab or blends. We stock a list chock full of these and I always suggest them to guests who are willing to be adventurous and venture outside the box of what they love.
# 4: Mashima Reserve American Wagyu Beef Long Bone Rib-Eye
It’s a Rib-Eye that has the bone in it, along with a little marrow, with a ton of delicious grilled notes. If we were going to be super specific with a wine suggestion for this, I’d say a Darioush Cabernet from Napa or Washington, or DeLille Doyenne, a Cab-Syrah blend.
# 5: Parmesan Crusted Alaskan Halibut
The richness and creaminess of this halibut dish really cries for higher-toned wines. I’d say a Chianti Classico or a good classic Chardonnay from Washington. We have the Walls Chardonnay right now that we’re doing by the glass, with a beautiful layer of oak behind it.
# 6: La Belle Farm Foie Gras
Sauternes and foie gras is a classic pairing. The rich fat of the foie gras goes wonderfully with the honey sweetness of the Sauternes. Our foie gras would also work well with a Madeira. We have Justino Madeira that has just enough sweetness to do the trick.
# 7: Mesquite Grilled Lamb Loin
Lamb and Bordeaux is a fairly classic pairing. Something else that would work really well with the lamb is a Pinot Noir from Oregon or Burgundy.
# 8: Atlantic Lobster Tails
Lobster and Chardonnay – it’s as classic as you can get. The thing I always like to say about lobster is if you’re eating one of the most prized pieces of fish protein that you can order, you shouldn’t put a five-dollar wine behind it (though there are some good five-dollar wines out there). To me, a very oakey but elegant Puligny Montrachet from France would just go stunning with it. They use a lot of oak in France at the Puligny Grand Cru or Premier Cru level, but there’s an elegance to it that goes just fantastic with lobster.
But at the end of the day it’s all about preference. Something I always tell my guests is, if it’s a wine you like, it is going to go well with whatever food you are eat. There are all these little rules – like lighter fish with lighter reds and heavy reds with darker meats – that have become old school. The main thing is to have fun with your pairing. If you have a gorgeous Shiraz from Yakima Valley and you want to have it with salmon, you absolutely should.
Is it a perfect pairing? No it’s not. But is it something you enjoy? If the answer is yes, then I’d say, go for it!