High on the Vine: The secrets of wine and steak pairings

If you think that a dry, red wine is all you need to pair with that steak, think again. Joon Lim of Kevin Rathbun Steak explains.

Photograph By Evan Mah

When it comes to a juicy steak, I originally thought that a dry, red wine was good enough. The reasoning makes perfect sense: A tannic, dry red wine will dry out your mouth and let the juices from the steak shine. Drop this line on Joon Lim, the former wine director at Kevin Rathbun Steak, and he’ll probably give you an assuring head nod. Tell him you love Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, and he’ll usher you to a good bottle. But if you do this, just know that Lim has other ideas if you trust him. I recently sat down with Lim to see where he’d take me on a wine list and to find out if pairing wine with steak really is as simple as “dry, red wine.” Spoiler alert: it’s not. For five specific pairings, click through the photo gallery below.

When it comes to pairing wine with steak, what are principles people should keep in mind?
Acidity is key when you’re pairing with steak because steaks are so heavy. They’re meant to fill you up. They’re rich and have butter, herbs, and other spices. Acidity is your friend. Think about on a hot summer afternoon after a rich and heavy meal. Do you want more richness in your mouth? You probably want a sensation that’s more thirst-quenching to counterbalance everything. It’s the most important structure that I look for in a red wine.

When it comes to pairing with steak, first I consider the cut of the beef and its texture: a filet verses a ribeye verses a New York Strip verses a bistro flank steak. Each cut will give you different textures, and wines come in all sorts of textures: light to medium to full body, highly tannic to low tannic, high astringency to low astringency. And then I consider how the steak is sauced: Does it have a Diane sauce or is it served with a béarnaise? Will it be pepper-crusted or spiced in a special way?

Can you elaborate on textures and wine? Filets are luxuriously tender cuts of beef. They show a little bit more iron minerality because they don’t have the savory marbling that ribeyes do. With a filet, I’d choose a higher acid, more toned-down red like a Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais [a vibrant, fruity red from Burgundy in France] or even an elegant Côte-Rôtie, which often gives wonderful citrus fruit and bread notes.

On the other end of the spectrum sits the bone-in cowboy ribeye. It’s extremely well-marbled and a very fatty cut of beef. You want the tannins and acid to balance out the rich textures. You may not want to put a full body, spicy Australian Shiraz with high alcohol in your mouth after tasting the ribeye because it’s so mouth-filling and heavy. I’m a person of contrast. I want a wine to go against all of that. Barolos have high tannins and acidity with rich dried fruits, a sour component on the back palate as well as savory earth and spices. There’s not a better wine that goes with the dry-aged cowboy ribeye.

If it’s a high-quality cut, New York Strips can give the same tenderness as filets and can give you the same marbling as ribeyes. I like New York Strips in that they give you a powerful beefy flavor, for lack of better words. I think New York Strips have the most flavor out of any cut that we have. I think the New York Strips are the better cuts to pair with the Napa Cabs, something more fruit-forward and heady to balance out that power. New York Strips are not elegant cuts. They’re not restrained. I really like new-world Syrahs, DuMol [in Russian River Valley] being one of my favorite examples. Cooler climates in California are really exploiting Syrah and are trying to make it with heightened levels of acidity, as well as cracked pepper and jammy tones.

When you have customers who say that they don’t drink red wine and they’re looking for a white, what direction do you point them in?
A lot of people don’t realize that white wines can go just as easily with beef as reds. I’ve paired a dry Australian Riesling with steak before. Before you start crucifying me, my reasoning is this: Take, for example, a dry-aged porterhouse or dry-aged ribeye. A dry-aged steak is very mellow, and it’s lost a lot of its tough fibers. It’s very tender. It also develop a minerality that really resonates with the smoky, slatey, earthiness in Rieslings from Australia, which are higher in alcohol. Alcohol creates body and a textural bridge between the steak and the wine.

I could also recommend a Montrachet [Chardonnay out of Burgundy]. It’s very fashionable, very rich, and flamboyant. It’s not afraid to show you that it has new oak or flavors like vanilla and rich, baked apple fruit. You have to taste one to believe it. It’s sad that they’re $500 bottle, but they too create that wonderfully rich, textural bridge.