Photograph by Getty Images
By Daryna Tobey
June 12, 2015

When drinking a California Cabernet with dinner, is it always beef or bust? We asked Jessica Certo, wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Manhattan, how to approach pairing the Golden State’s most heralded grape variety with different kinds of food. She offered these guidelines:

  • Fattier steaks call for bigger wines. The best food pairing for big, young California Cabs is a well-marbled steak like ribeye. “Really extracted, viscous, high tannin” wines, says Certo, match steaks with higher fat content because “tannins cut fat,” be it in the form of meat or cheese.
  • Leaner meats are best paired with classically styled California Cabernet, which are more restrained wines with moderate levels of alcohol. If you’re having veal, lamb or even filet mignon, either serve a Cab with some age on it, or choose one from a producer whose style is a bit more old school (Dominus, Heitz and Montelena come to mind). For filet mignon, you need an elegant wine with nuance and layers; with gamier meat, “the stinkier the Cab, the better,” Certo says.
  • When pairing Cabernet with vegetarian dishes, tread carefully. Pastas with cheese or cream sauce can stand up to Cabernet that’s classically styled or well aged, Certo says, because these veggie dishes contain some fat. But “young cult California wine will overpower most vegetarian dishes” because vegetables don’t contain protein. So yeah, maybe save the entrée salad for another night.

To be sure, no wine label will say “big and extracted” or “old-school and stinky,” so ask your retailer or sommelier to help you find a wine with the flavor profile that you seek. Somms usually “know where the gems are” on the wine list, says Certo, and can steer you in the right direction.

Jessica Certo, wine director at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in Manhattan
Stephanie de Rouge ©stephaniederouge2014

To get you started, here are some recently released California Cabernets. The bigger “ribeye wines” here are the Vineyard 29, The Leap, even the Etude; the Dominus Napanook and the Charles Krug fit more into the “classical” category that Certo describes. (The Brandlin Cabernet that we reviewed last month is another that falls in the classical camp.)

1. Charles Krug 2012 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($75)

The Family Reserve has ripe red plum and mixed berry fruit, and a round, feminine feel. It’s edged judiciously with cream and brown sugar with a helping of mocha on the finish. Tannins are soft and smooth; approachable and enjoyable now.

2. Dominus Estate 2011 Napanook Napa Valley ($60)

The Napanook is restrained, nuanced and Old World-y. It has juicy, tangy cherry and plum fruit at its heart, edges of herbaceousness and cigar box, and chewy, textured tannins. Shows good length and texture. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, with Petit Verdot and Cab Franc making up the balance.

3. Etude 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($85)

Sophisticated, dark and brooding, with rich plum flavors detailed with herb and eucalyptus notes. An appealing bitter chocolate/mocha overlay, from the nose through the long finish, ties it all together. Excellent.

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Courtesy of Treasury Wine Estates

4. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2012 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($55)

Plum and mixed berry aromas and flavors are edged in a crème brûlée; tannins are smooth and approachable now. It’s ripe, juicy and goes down easy. Drink over the near term.

5. Stags’ Leap Winery 2011 The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District ($85)

A sexy wine with full-throttle flavor: It serves up ripe blackberry and black cherry fruit; a plush, chalk/clay mouthfeel, and brambly, earthy notes from nose to finish. Delicious now, but give it another two years at least for optimal enjoyment. 76% Cab, 24% Petite Sirah.

6. Vineyard 29 2012 Cru Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($63)

Dark ruby-purple color. Very enjoyable; bursting with ripe mixed plums and nut/earth/vanilla notes throughout. Cru delivers the full body and lush texture you want from a Napa Cab and is drinking well now, but will be even better 2017–2020.

Daryna Tobey lives in New York and began writing about wine in 2001. Contact her @daryna on Twitter or at fortunewines@gmail.com.

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