Risky Business: Breaking the Rules of Wine & Food Pairing

Homemade Grass Fed Prime Rib Roast with Herbs and Spices

By Rebecca Meïr-Liebman of Chef & Somm

I’m not a follower of hard and fast rules. Charts and wheels are fun, but the best experiences I’ve had have been when I broke the rules.

Applying the rules to wine and food pairing will deliver a decent experience, but for an exceptional pairing, it’s all about risks.

Most charts insist that Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine for beef. But is it really? Always? But charts don’t reflect our actual dining habits.

Most guides list a single ingredient – chicken, beef, duck, etc. – but how often is there just one ingredient on your plate? How often do you order an unseasoned steak, without sauce, or garlicky potatoes, or vegetables?

Almost never.

Sure, charred steak with roasted potatoes and beef jus is great with Cabernet Sauvignon, but how about surf and turf? What will a Cab Sauv do to butter-poached lobster? How will a big, bossy red behave if the steak is sauced with cream and herbs? Badly. That’s how.

The best pairings are made when the whole plate – not just the protein – is considered; the spices, saltiness, the dominate flavour, even the textures on the plate, the done-ness of the meat, the crispiness of the veggies, and the temperature of the elements.

In Italy, beef carpaccio is rarely served with red. As an appetizer it pairs well with fuller-bodied, oaked whites – same for steak tartare – but being a beef dish, it’s tempting to pour a full-bodied red, such as Cabernet Sauvignon – it is raw red meat, after all – but this would Beef Tartar by Chef Eyal Liebman be a mistake.

The tannins in a Cab Sauv will overpower the lightness of the raw, tender tartare. Tender cuts cooked anything less than medium-well are too delicate for most Californian Cabernet Sauvignons.

Tannic wines work well with cooked beef because cooked meat is loaded with umami; umami is complimented by the mouthfeel of tannic red wines – the humble hamburger would be a much better fit with a Cab Sauv.

When beef’s umami is not enhanced by cooking, as with tartare, the tannins will seem more aggressive, creating an unpleasant imbalance not only between the food and wine, but also within the wine itself!Kew Vineyards Marsanne Viognier 2012

With raw beef, try a Marsanne-Viognier blend — Ontario’s Kew Vineyards are making a great example of that blend. It’s a bold white so the beef won’t bully it, but it’s soft enough to not overshadow the delicate, tender, raw meat; they bring out the best in each other.

The slight fruitiness of the Marsanne-Viognier stands up well against the piquancy of tartare.

Consider temperature when pairing. Try this experiment: taste melted ice cream or room temperature soda pop; they’ll both taste cloyingly sweet, because taste buds are muted by cold.

Different temperatures mute or accentuate different flavours; and psychologically we desire a cold wine with a cold dish, and since you wouldn’t dream of serving a chilled Cabernet Sauvignon, with beef tartare, go white!

Beef tartare with capers and fresh onion on olive wood board with wine
Beef tartare with red wine? No, think chilled white!

Perfect pairings are influenced by so much more than what is on the plate. The greatest pairings consider the time of day, weather, mood, ambiance; they take risks and break the rules.


Rebecca L


Rebecca Meïr-Liebman
Sommelier & Consultant

As co-owner of Chef & Somm, the GTA’s only Bespoke Private Dining and Sommelier service, Rebecca has acquired over a decade of experience in some of Canada’s – and the world’s – top dining rooms.

She earned her hospitality, service
and sommelier skills at top restaurants – Canoe, Luma, BLÜ Ristorante and Maple Leafs Sport & Entertainment – but Rebecca is always learning, tasting, and cultivating relationships with winemakers, local and abroad.

Her thirst for wine knowledge is a never-ending quest; Rebecca brings an unquenchable curiosity and authority to any dining experience. www.ChefSomm.ca

*Photo credit Hannah Sherrett of Hannah Photography, food by Chef Eyal Liebman.



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