by contributing writer Tricia Renshaw
The last, languishing days of winter always leave me blue. The odd remnants of once-white snow have turned bilious brown, mud clings to shoes and dog feet (and legs, and bellies), and spring weather is only a tease—it won’t really settle in for months yet. At times like these, I feel a need for a bit of luxury, and as it pertains to food and wine pairing, that means filet mignon with a dollop of béarnaise sauce and something special to wash it down.
On a more practical note, I have a recipe which requires few ingredients and not much time in the kitchen to produce a meal which is undeniably out of the ordinary, and thus perfect for last-minute get-togethers with friends.
When we pair the filet mignon and béarnaise sauce with wine, we need to pay attention to disparate elements. The contrast here is the reason this sauce (herbal, creamy, somewhat acidic) works so well with the meat (unctuous, fatty, charred). And it’s the reason that pairing wine is challenging.
Do we want a wine which will mirror those herbal components, one with high acidity to match the vinegar tones? Do we want a rich red to match the big beefy flavors here? Before reading about wine pairing, I would have bet on a red. Now I’m not so sure.
Weight—Experts say look at the weight of the dish to pick a wine category. Light wines with light foods, and heavy wines with heavier foods. Clearly, our dish needs a heavy wine.
Vinegar—If we pair to the sauce, we’ll want a wine with some acidity, otherwise the wine will seem flabby.
Tarragon—We’ll want to find something which won’t clash with this licorice-like herb. Recommended wines include Chardonnay, Roussanne or Marsanne (white wines originally from the Rhône), Pinot gris, Zinfandel and Shiraz/Syrah.
Richness—We’ll want a wine with some mechanism for cutting through the fat: tannins, acidity in the finish, bubbles, or even a little burn from some alcohol.
Char—A wine with some oak should tie in nicely with the charred flavors from the beef.
I’m going to look for a Roussanne for something interesting to try—it’s touted as a heavier white wine with some fruity, nutty and herbal aromas.
I’d also like a Chardonnay from Burgundy, which I expect to be on the heavy side for a white wine, with some oak, some earthy notes, a little acid, and not too much buttery aroma.
Alternatively, I’d like to try Champagne with this dish. Not only would the luxury aspects match, but old world sparkling wines often taste of mushroom and onion, which would be delicious with this meal. The bubbles would cut through the richness and cleanse the palate between bites. I recently had a Pol Roger Reserve Champagne which would fit the bill perfectly.
Experts explain that once you have assessed the richness, or weight of the dish, you should look to the accompaniments to pick your wine. The béarnaise suggests a white wine, but the steak certainly cries out for red. At the risk of creating a real mess, I want to try a big red with this dish. Something spicy and heavy—a warm climate red wine. Zinfandel and Syrah came up as good matches for tarragon, so I’ll try to find one of those as well.
The Wine Shop
No Pol Roger, bummer. I’ll try a Burgundy. Cheryl Pitti at Ryan’s suggested Domaine De La Douaix 2009 Bourgogne En Mairey Moustie. There are a lot of words on that label, but it’s a white wine from Burgundy, therefore, it’s Chardonnay. Easy.
Finding Roussanne was not so easy. We found a white blend from the Rhône, La Vielle Ferme, 2011, Vin blanc, which listed Roussanne as part of the blend. I purchased the bottle, and looked up the blend online when I returned home. It’s mostly Grenache blanc (high alcohol, low acidity, herbaceous notes), Bourboulenc (body, citrus, smoke), Ugni blanc (called Trebbiano in Italy, citrus, white floral notes, mineral) with just a touch of Roussanne. Fortunately, the other wines possess the qualities I was hoping for in a Roussanne, so the wine should serve the purpose intended.
For the big red, Cheryl directed me to Austin Hope 2010 Syrah from Paso Robles, California. With 15% alcohol listed on the label, I suspected we found just the right giant red to try with the dish.
Before getting to work in the kitchen, I made the following notes.
The Rhône Blend
On the nose: black pepper, fresh peas, pear skin, peach, pecans, a little licorice (promising!), and smoke.
In the mouth: The acid is bright though not harsh. Way more fruit—apple, peach, and pear—than I had hoped for. Tastes of cherry cough syrup—hot and fruity with unusual medicinal overlay. Sometimes the weirdest wines make the best matches. I’m not ruling it out, but I fear the acid and high fruit will be a poor match for our robust steaks.
The Burgundy (Chardonnay)
On the nose: strong charred, tarry notes, with lemon underneath.
In the mouth: Bright acid, lemon, smoke, thyme. Brisk, but also mouthcoating. Artichoke and river rock define finish. Brighter acid than the Rhône blend. Acid should cut the richness of the dish. Herbal tie-in is nice. Smokey aromas should complement beef.
On the nose: licorice, molasses, red currant, violet, plum, meaty undertones, eucalyptus.
In the mouth: Plum, raspberry, creamy, mouthfilling. Some tannins, but not hugely tannic. High alcohol adds weight. Creaminess of mouthfeel hides some of the heat. Doesn’t feel like a 15% alcohol wine!
The Rhône blend
Fresh, definitely cuts richness. Tarragon in sauce and licorice in wine marry beautifully. Cherry cough-syrup flavors do not show up when paired with food. The herbal/smokey notes take over. Love this match.
The Burgundy (Chardonnay)
Acid in wine matches acid in sauce. Smoke ties in to beef. Green notes in wine tie in to the herbal flavors in the sauce. Also good, though not as compelling as the Rhône.
Wow!! Makes charred nature of the meat stand out. Sauce is diminished to lovely, creamy background note. Raisin, clove, brown sugar flavors in wine burst forth when tasted with the meat.
This was an easy win for the Syrah, though I’m still curious about the Pol Roger. Perhaps I’ll have a rematch in the future.
From what I had read, I expected the red wine to clash with the overall dish due to the contributions from the sauce. What I found was that although the white wines did tie in better with the sauce, they elevated the sauce notes, and diminished the beefiness of the meal. The red wine highlighted the steak, which was meant to be the star player, and let the sauce play a supporting role.
What I learned is, yes, look at the weight of the meat and the meal when choosing a wine to pair, but don’t stop there. Chicken, turkey and pork will likely play less of a role than an accompanying sauce in the overall flavor profile of a dish, so I expect the best match in those cases will pair the wine to the sauce. When you want the meat (bacon, beef) and not the sauce or spice to play the dominating role, make sure the wine highlights the attributes we love about the meat.
In this case, the velvet richness of the Syrah accentuated the meltingly tender texture of the beef, and the caramelized meatiness of the dish brought out layers of berry and spice in the wine. Each bite and each sip was sublime; my need for luxury was supremely met.
- 4 filets mignons, about 7 to 8 ounces each (about 1 ½ inches thick)
- 4 russet potatoes
- 2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar
- 2 Tablespoons dry white wine (I used Chardonnay)
- 1-2 Tablespoons finely chopped shallots
- 1-2 Tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
- 8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into large chunks
- 3 egg yolks
- Olive Oil
- Salt and Pepper
- Ice Cubes
- Preheat oven to 450 °F.
- Prepare vegetables: wash and chop tarragon, peel and chop shallot, scrub potatoes and pierce them all over with a paring knife or fork.
- Prepare meat: Dry steaks thoroughly with paper towels, then drizzle steaks with olive oil (about 1 tsp per steak). Rub olive oil onto both sides of steak, and season well with salt and pepper.
- Make an ice bath. Empty cubes into bowl or dish pan. Add enough cold water to come partway up the sides of the top of a double boiler. Set aside.
- Put butter in a Pyrex pitcher. Melt in microwave on high, about 1 minute. Let cool to room temperature.
- Combine the dry wine, vinegar, shallots and tarragon in the small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly, until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Scrape into top of double boiler, and let cool to room temperature.
- Place potatoes in a circle on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Turn potatoes over, and microwave for an additional 4 minutes.
- Put microwaved potatoes into pre-heated 450 °F oven, making sure to leave room for baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.
- While potatoes are baking, heat a heavy-bottomed, not non-stick, frying pan (I use cast iron) over high heat until hot but not smoking (2-3 minutes).
- Sear steaks—cook without moving until well-browned, and a flavorful golden crust has formed (2-3 minutes per side) Make sure your steaks are browning and not burning during this step. This step will generate a LOT of smoke.
- Remove seared steaks to a small baking sheet. Place into oven. Bake for about 6 minutes for steaks which are rare to medium-rare. Pull them out earlier for rare steaks or let cook a little longer for more well-done steaks. To check for your preferred degree of doneness use a meat thermometer. Hold steak with tongs, and insert thermometer into side of steak. You’ll want to stop cooking at 120 for rare, 125 for medium rare, and 135-140 for medium.
- While potatoes and steaks are in the oven, fill bottom of a double boiler with water (water should not touch top bowl of double boiler) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low or medium low, so it simmers but doesn’t continue to boil.
- Combine the egg yolks with the shallot mixture in the top of the double boiler. Place over hot water. Gradually whisk in the melted butter in a slow, steady stream. This should take about 1 minute. Continue whisking until sauce has thickened. Season with salt and pepper, and remove top of double boiler to ice bath. Hold bowl so it does not tip over into the ice water, and whisk until the sauce has cooled somewhat. This should help prevent separation. Set aside.
- When steaks come out of the oven, tent loosely with foil to keep warm while potatoes finish cooking, and to allow juices to settle.
- When potatoes are done, remove from oven, pierce the tops in the shape of an X using a fork, and push in at ends of potato to move flesh up and out, preventing potato from becoming sodden inside.
- Plate steak, top with béarnaise, add potato and perhaps a salad or green vegetable, and prepare to accept lavish praise.
Tricia Renshaw is Assistant Winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York. She is completing formal studies in wine science and viticulture via the University of California’s Distance Learning program while raising two amazing daughters.