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(Bloomberg) -- Before I stick a fork into a sizzling steak, I insist on a large glass of a great red wine that I can swirl alongside it and savor between juicy bites.
So do most people who go to steak houses, which is why their wine lists reflect the reality that big reds and rare, charred meat is a timeless combo.
And in an era when sommeliers champion obscure grapes from esoteric regions you’ve never heard of, chain steak houses offer reassuringly recognizable bottles: Napa cabs, big deal Bordeaux, classic Burgundy, muscular Argentinian malbec.
This cuts both ways. Some such chains offer dismal selections of boring big-brand reds and whites with a sizable price tag attached. Others take the formula and play with it, picking only the best bottles from top producers and finding less expensive, comparable wines from ones you may not have heard of.
The latter are part of a long tradition, going back to the original Delmonico’s in New York, where Diamond Jim Brady supposedly paired sweet wines and steak. (His taste, not mine.)
The first great steak house list I put my nose into was the massive tome at Bern’s, the Tampa destination that debuted in 1956 and claims to have the biggest cellar in the world. The list is 181 pages long, with more than 6,500 different wines. You can buy a copy for $25.
None of the chains I checked out recently quite match that. Still, my four picks below offer a wide variety of top bottles from regions beyond Napa and Bordeaux, older vintages, adventurous surprises, and at least a few bargains.
How to Match Your Wine With Your Steak
So how to choose a steak red? Jessica Norris, beverage director at Del Frisco’s, goes for matching texture over flavor. “ My ideal,” she said, “is a bone-in filet with a 1989 Château Pichon Baron, or 1995 Château Margaux.” The texture of this filet is tender, with little fat, and is mirrored by the silkiness and smoothed-out tannins of these well-aged wines. Sounds awfully good to me.
Here are a few more matching hints:
A filet has a delicacy better paired with an elegant Burgundy or aged Bordeaux than a heavy Napa cab. The intense flavors and fat of a grilled rib eye go best with full-bodied, rich-textured Rhônes or California syrahs, while a New York strip’s combo of tenderness and juicy flavor needs acidity to cut through the fat. You’ll find it in a rich, Italian Super Tuscan or Napa mountain cab.
Wet-aged steaks taste milder and need wines with lush fruit; those that are dry-aged crave wines with powerful tannins. The leaner the meat, the lighter the red. A very rare steak will mellow the tannins in a young cabernet. And if you like yours super-charred, pick a wine with more ripeness and sweetness.
Since most diners order red, you might wonder why so many Champagnes and white wines make it onto lists. Well, steak houses also sell oysters, seafood, and salads. An off-dry riesling with the traditional iceberg wedge smothered with blue cheese dressing and bacon is just about perfect.
Each of my chain picks has restaurants in at least three cities. Some have similar lists in all their locations; others have very different ones. I went with the New York lists.
The Best Wine Lists
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House New York, Dallas, Washington, and more
With 2,000 selections, the New York location near Rockefeller Center takes wine very seriously. This is a place to splurge and learn. Its wine events include an annual magnum bash—during which the restaurant waives the corkage fee, encouraging customers to bring big bottles to share—and a “Saturday with the Somm” series that will return this spring.
The list is heavy on California, with multiple vintages of Napa icons such as Screaming Eagle (vintages go from 1994, at $4,995, to 2012, at $2750) and Opus One (vintages from 1997, at $895, to 2012, at $425). Count on plenty of first-growth Bordeaux, rare Burgundies, classic Super Tuscans such as Ornellaia ($395 to $695), Northern Rhônes like Guigal’s great single vineyard reds ($495 to $2190), and such Australian stars as Penfolds Grange ($795 to $1350). Most carry high price tags, but I found "bargains": The 2012 Scarecrow, $500 in a store, is listed at $525.
Yes, you can get by under $100. I’d single out the Sandhi Pinot Noir at $75, Clos du Val Napa cab for $79, and Bodegas Ysios Reserva Rioja at $75. Overall, Washington State cabernets are good deals. And because the restaurant has invested in a Coravin, you can get top wines such as Château Lynch Bages by the glass.
Charlie Palmer Steak (New York, Washington, Las Vegas)
Each restaurant’s—including the new one opening in Napa in the Archer hotel later this year—has a different focus: New York has more French wines; Washington is all-American; and Las Vegas specializes in Northern California.
With 644 wines, the New York list focuses on value, featuring excellent underrated Burgundies and Super Tuscans, as well as some star bottles such as 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache ($6,500).
It’s the prices that wow. When I spotted 1985 Château Leoville-Barton for $105 ($60 less than retail!), I felt like grabbing a reservation just so I could order it. Under-$100 wines that caught my eye were the Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel at $90, Bedell Cellars Merlot from Long Island for $60, and a cult northern Rhône wine, Franck Balthazar’s Côte Rotie, for $95. There’s also a long list of half-bottles.
The Capital Grille (56 locations, including New York, Seattle, Washington)
For a technologically advanced approach to wine, look no further.
Each location of this beloved establishment has its own digital wine list, organized by grape variety, which you can view in advance on a mobile app, Capital Concierge, which launched last year. This is easy to use but requires that you already know what varietals you like. If not, spend your time perusing the recommended food-and-wine pairings.
In New York, the 350 selections at the Time Life building branch range from $40 to thousands of dollars. Among the best buys are Oregon pinot noirs. I spotted bottles from such hot new Napa cab producers as Arkenstone, as well as classics like Cathy Corison. You’ll find a surprising number of California cabs under $100. Top wines such as Dominus are available by the glass, thanks to a Coravin program.
And you can stash your own bottles in a private wine locker.
BLT Prime (New York, Washington, Miami)BLT Steak (12 locations, including New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul)
BLT has two versions of a steak house. Steak has a bistro ambiance; Prime is more contemporary. Both New York locations have well-curated selections of Burgundy, Bordeaux, California, and Italy, and more under-the-radar new producers and geeky wines than you find at most chains.
At New York’s Prime, for example, you’ll find an Emeritus pinot from Sonoma and sommelier favorite Frank Cornelissen’s MunJebel MC from Etna, in addition to cult cabs such as Harlan Estate. While some prices are high, there are surprising bargains, like the classic 2013 Ridge Monte Bello cab, at $125 (way less than retail). For under $100, look for Chianti Classicos, zinfandels, Argentinian malbecs, and wines from South Africa.
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