Go on then – what’s best with steak? Malbec?

What’s the best wine for steak? In Argentina they are obsessed with steak, so my first thought is to try a famous Argentinian Malbec. But the original home for Malbec is Cahors in Southern France, so my second thought is to compare a bottle from there. And Bordeaux is reputedly good with beef, so how about a wine for steak competition – three wines side by side?

(How’s that for an excuse to get bladdered?)

I should declare straight off I had decided to try the Heston Blumenthal recipe I saw him do last week on Channel 4’s How to Cook like Heston (also his wonderful book, Heston Blumenthal at Home). Heston uses a lot of rosemary in this recipe (given below), in fact THREE WHOLE SPRIGS. Perhaps this makes it an unfair comparison for the wines because rosemary is a pungent herb. Oh well, you have to choose one kind of recipe or another and I am a stickler for keeping to the effect the chef intended, so now it becomes an exercise in finding the wines that can stand up to the herb.

And there is another factor that makes this competition a bit unfair – the wines are not in the same price bracket. But hey, when rushing around Waitrose for ingredients and visiting three different merchants for wine, you don’t always have time to make sure you set up the fairest of tests…

Wine for steak – the wines

wine with steak

wine for steak

wine for steak - chateau meaume

If you live in or near Cambridge you can buy my first candidate, Argentinian Septima Malbec 2010, from Noel Young Wines, for £7.99, or from Wine Rack or EveryWine.co.uk. This is from a high altitude vineyard in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, so we immediately know it’s going to be a more elegant style than the blockbusters emerging from lower, hotter regions. This wine gave me a whiff of cherries, raspberries and mushrooms with a surprise hint of smoke alongside the earth.

The Chateau Paillas Cahors 2002 (Joseph Barnes Wines, £11.95)  smelled even more earthy (almost truffle) with hints of creamy vanilla alongside violets and blueberry fruit. Overall the taste wasn’t too gamey – clean flavours of blackberry shone through along with spicey clove.

The Chateau Meaume 2007 (Majestic, £9.99), being a Merlot dominated blend, offered me red fruit aromas – restrained raspberry and red plum with a sharper, tart acidity than the other two wines and a touch of white pepper.

And drinking these alongside Heston’s steak was a revelation. I had expected the added salt to soften the tartness and bring out fruit in the Chateau Meaume, but in fact the strong rosemary herb flavours flattened the fruit, competing for dominance. But this was the best match for texture, with the strong, fine tannins amplifying the grain of the meat.

By contrast the stronger fruit in the Septima Malbec survived the rosemary pairing fairly well. After a mouthful of food, the violets in the wine suddenly disappeared and the fruit stepped forward in almost the way a fruity chutney on the side would add its own flavours. If you love fruit-forward, new world styles (as I do) then this is definitely a good choice.

But the surprise of the evening, at least for me, was how well the Cahors sang with Heston’s recipe. It’s fair to say you might expect southern France to produce a more savoury and vegetal wine than a the same variety from a hotter continental country like Argentina, and in this case the natural earthy flavours sang beautifully with the rosemary. After a mouthful of the meat you noticed both fruit and earth more in the wine and as a bonus the whole dish (included salad) tasted better too.

(Septima Argentinian Malbec 2010 was supplied for review, the other two were bought.)

Wine for steak – the recipe

wine with steak recipeIf you watched his latest series on Channel 4 you’ll know Heston’s ageing trick. He says to take the steak out of the packet and place it on a wire rack in the fridge for two days to let the air dry it out, concentrate the flavour and start to tenderise the meat.

Be warned – we are used to cooking wetter steaks so doing it this way involves watching the edges dry brown and if you are at all like me you will start to wonder if you are doing the right thing. But stick with it to reap the reward and remember to take your steaks out of the fridge two hours before cooking to bring them to room temperature.

Olive oil
2 sirloin steaks
Salt and black pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled and bashed with the flat part of a knife or by hand
4–6 sprigs of rosemary
2 strips of lemon zest (use a vegetable peeler)
juice of 1 lemon
60g rocket leaves
40g parmesan cheese shavings (use a vegetable peeler)
Sea salt

I served this with small baked potatoes heated in an earthenware (or cast iron) oven pot. Just ligtly grease the pot and put in an oven at 180ºC for an hour.

While the potatoes are cooking, measure out 120ml olive oil and add the garlic and rosemary and leave to infuse. Mix the rocket leaves with parmesan shavings.

10 minutes before the potatoes are done, place a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a high heat, add a thin layer of olive oil and heat until the oil is smoking. Season your (dried out) steaks with a little salt and place them carefully in the hot pan. Flip them every 15–20 seconds untiul after two or three minutes (on TV he used a digital thermometer to tell if they were cooked – 45ºC for rare, 55ºC for medium and 65ºC for well done).

Remove the steaks from the pan and rest them on a wire rack over a plate to catch the juices for 5 minutes. Quickly remove the pan from the heat and discard most of the oil (but don’t clean the pan) and pour in the oil, garlic and rosemary mixture you prepared earlier. Rub the strips of lemon zest between your finger and thumb to release the oils and add them too. Allow the flavours to infuse for 5 minutes while the meat is resting, then squeeze in the lemon juice and strain the combined dressing through a sieve adding any juices from the steak.

Slice the steaks thinly with a sharp knife. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and place on a serving dish spooning over half the dressing. Get the potatoes out and pour the remaining dressing over the salad.

And then serve with Malbec – either the fruit forward Septima if you generally prefer New World styles or the Cahors if you prefer more refrained, complex Old World wine.

I would have been just as happy to sup the Septima on its own – the very ripe fruit character makes it perfect to enjoy by itself as it develops in the glass. But for a really good wine for steak (at least when matching to this particular rosemary-heavy recipe) it’s got to be the Cahors.