Rhone variety may be perfect mate for steak

VINTAGE POINT

June 08, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

This weekend, all across America, people will throw steaks on the grill and uncork a bottle of fine red wine.

They will open up California cabernet sauvignons and Washington merlots, zinfandels and Chiantis, Beaujolais and Barolos, Riojas and Rhones. A few will even descend into their cellars and bring out aged bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Very few of these wines will be the perfect matchup with steak. Very few consumers will care. They'll have a good time and the wines will enhance their enjoyment of the meal. There are no Wrong Choices if a good time is had by all.

Some of us enjoy the wine-food matchup game a little more than others, however. We'll try with all the diligence of a champion rose breeder to marry that steak to the perfect bottle of wine. Sometimes we miss, but sometimes we find a combination that is truly memorable.

This week we will concentrate on red meat, pork and poultry. There are no rules being handed down here, just personal observations.

Beef

The red wines that go best with a succulent prime rib pulled from the oven in February aren't necessarily the best to accompany a London broil pulled sizzling from the coals on a warm June evening.

Grilling changes food. It lends a smoky, sometimes even ashy taste that can clash with some elements in wines. These flavors can exaggerate the bitter tannins in some young wines or overwhelm the delicate nuances of older vintages. Sometimes the lesser wine is the better choice.

Let's take cabernet sauvignon. With a roast prime rib, a fine old cabernet can be exquisite, but put that beef on the grill and the equation changes. There are wines that have a far greater natural affinity for grilled beef than cabernet.

Zinfandel, with its exotic flavors and rounded fruitiness, can be lovely. Cotes du Rhone and a host of other southern French wines can be delightful. A Chianti, with its aggressive acidity, can be inspired.

But for me, the most magnificent natural marriage between grilled beef and wine comes when you uncork a bottle of fine mourvedre.

Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it. Mourvedre is one of the world's lesser-known great grape varieties. Rhone fanatics know as one of the primary components of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but its purest expression comes in the extraordinary wines of Bandol, in Provence.

In recent years, mourvedre has also been rediscovered in certain California vineyards, where it had been hiding out under the name mataro. Such producers as Ridge, Thomas Coyne, Bonny Doon, Cline, Trentadue and Sean Thackery have been using it, on its own or in blends, with considerable success.

Mourvedre has an herbal character and racy acidity that just seems to meld with grilled foods. Its tannins are generally less apparent than those in cabernet or merlot. Whether from Bandol or California, it seems to wrap itself around the flavor of grilled steak or beef roast and hug it.

Suggestions: With hamburger, a good $6 bet is the 1992 Domaine Sainte Lucie Coteaux du Languedoc from Georges Duboeuf; for a few bucks more you can upgrade to a 1992 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($8).

With steak, for value, try a 1991 Chateau du Donjon Minervois ($7.49), a bold, meaty, yet still racy wine from the south of France. For extra enjoyment, a 1990 Domaine Tempier Bandol ($21) or 1991 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant (about $18).

With a roast prepared on the grill, any of the steak wines will do, but for a truly extraordinary treat try the 1992 Ridge Mataro (mourvedre), Ev-angelo Vineyard ($19).

Lamb

One of the finest grilled foods is butterflied leg of lamb, marinated in olive oil and rosemary, cooked as rare as you dare. It is also a dish that is pure poetry with the right wine.

In general, wines that go well with grilled beef will also go well with lamb, but lamb has just an extra measure of sweetness and wild-game flavor that will complement an even bigger, richer wine.

A first-rate zinfandel can be an inspired matchup. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, if it's not too tannic, can be wonderful. A great wine from Spain's Ribera del Duero, such as Pesquera, can be magnificent.

Suggestions: For value, 1992 Mas Champart Coteaux du Languedoc ($9). For sheer grandeur, the riveting 1992 Ravenswood Sonoma Zinfandel ($16). For truly perfect harmony, try the 1991 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($26). It's not as great a vintage as 1989 or 1990, but it's perfect to drink now.

Chicken

Contrary to the dictum of white wine with white meat, chicken often works better with a red wine. This is especially true when it's grilled.

But chicken is on the borderline where a single ingredient can tip the scales the other way. A fruity or fiery salsa topping can tip the scales to white. Raspberries in the marinade tips it back to red. Dijon mustard shifts it to white again.

For me, the best reds with chicken are Beaujolais, lighter California and Oregon pinot noirs and Cotes du Rhones. For whites, a full-blown, fruity California chardonnay or an Alsace pinot blanc are good choices.

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