Food & Wine Pairing

Cabernet Sauvignon and Food Pairing

Ingredients and Styles

Cabernet's bold personality demands attention and, while universally admired, it requires planning at table. In contrast to a grape like Chardonnay which can easily be masked by a dish that is too bold, Cabernet Sauvignon can overwhelm many light and delicate dishes. Cabernet's expressive individuality carries plenty of tannin. This, combined with its higher alcohol content (13 to 14 percent or sometimes even more) and a good lacing of oak, means that recipes must be selected carefully around the wine. 

Most of us drink Cabernet young when it's chock-full of everything– oak, tannin, and alcohol. Tannin needs a counterbalance (fat or protein), and the higher alcohol level demands more ample food. That usually means choosing a dish with considerable character; add to that the requirement of something that pairs well with oak, and your choices are limited. Steaks, chops, and other red meat are classics for a reason, especially when grilled, because the acrid flavors of charring mirror the bitter edge supplied by the tannins. Recent novelty meats such as ostrich and buffalo are also prime candidates for pairing with Cabernet, as are more pungent fowl, such as squab and duck. Hearty sauces (with dark mushrooms, wine reductions, peppers, and so on) are fine here. Black pepper is also a nice foil to tannin, so steak au poivre is a perfect pairing!

The need to tame the tannins with high-fat foods would seem to suggest that many cheeses should work. Alas, the “big wine goes with big cheese” theory fails more often than it succeeds. Cabernet is best when served with cheeses that range from mild to moderate in flavor, which pair with the wine rather than compete with it (think Saint-Nectaire, Brie, young Camembert, raclette, Monterey Jack, or fresh mozzarella). Head for the hills if someone offers up Roquefort or any other blue-veined wedges. Another fallacy is that pasta and risotto are excellent in taming tannins. Starch does not cut tannin, although it has body and texture that meld with the weight of Cabernet Sauvignon. Fat does lessen tannin, so you can be liberal in your use of butter and most dairy products. 

The chart below is a recommended guide to some general pairing ideas for Cabernet Sauvignon. There are no mandated rules. Feel free to be adventurous and creative while being thoughtful and aware of the grape’s inherent personality.

Wine Style Ingredients Cuisines + Cooking methods
All styles Butter and most dairy products
Cheeses that range from mild to moderate in flavor (Saint-Nectaire, Brie, young Camembert, raclette, Monterey Jack, or fresh mozzarella) Avoid Roquefort and other blue-veined cheeses
Starch has body and texture that melds with the weight of Cabernet Sauvignon (does not cut tannin)
Avoid chocolate!
In general: Grilling, charring, plank roasting (see below for detail)
Young, unoaked, softer (i.e. lower tannin) Lighter fowl (chicken, Cornish game hens and quail)
Meatier fish (shark or swordfish)
Black pepper
Grilling (less char), sautéing, roasting
Red meat: Cooked to “medium”
Black pepper-crusted tuna
Oak-aged (younger) -- moderate oak and tannin, with earthy notes Fresh herbs
Wild or dried mushrooms
Sharp vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, swiss chard and escarole) mustard greens to radicchio, from braised escarole to endive or roasted eggplant
Smoking and plank roasting
Grilling
Oak-aged (younger) – rich, lots of fruit, oak, but moderate tannin Toasted or roasted nuts
Sweeter note: e.g. soy-honey glaze
Rich stews, daubes, and other long-braised viscous dishes
Charred soy-honey glaze on meat
Fat-laden dishes
Black pepper added generously to a dish
Oak-aged (younger) – big-framed i.e. lots of fruit, oak, and tannin Generous amount of butter and most dairy
“Bitter” vegetables: mustard greens, escarole, endive, eggplant
Smoking and plank roasting
More char when grilling
Braising “bitter” vegetables such as radicchio or escarole
Roasting eggplant
Aged (8+ years) Keep food simple -- allow wine to show
Red meat: Cuts to be cooked rare
Straightforward dishes of suitable weight and style
Red meat cooked “blue” (i.e. very rare or rare)
Beef stew, uncomplicated pot roast, plainly grilled veal, or lamb chop

Food Pairing Guidelines

Wine Profile

Light -bodied, lower tannin

Cooking Methods and Ingredient

Not all Cabernet-based wines are big and tannic, however, so when you opt for a softer, lighter-bodied wine, dishes featuring lighter fowl (especially chicken, Cornish game hens and quail) or meatier fish (say, shark or swordfish) become options.

Wine Profile

Moderate oak and tannin, with earthy notes 

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

Certain Cabernets from slightly cooler climates and terroirs feature mineral, earth, tobacco, and cedar or cigar-box flavors, which set these wines apart from the well-made Cabernet-based wines of California's Napa Valley. This genre of reds allows increased play with fresh herbs, wild or dried mushrooms, and sharp vegetables (such as eggplant, zucchini, swiss chard and escarole).

Wine Profile

Rich, lots of fruit, moderate tannin

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

The texture of fuller-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons demands thicker dishes, like rich stews and other long-braised viscous dishes are naturals.

Wine Profile

Big-framed i.e. lots of fruit, oak and tannin

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

Cabernet's tannins almost always lean toward bitter and sharp. Because grilling and charring add similar bitter elements to food, it's no surprise that such treatments make for successful pairings. Playing to the oak is also a good rule of thumb: again, grilling works, along with smoking and plank roasting.

Wine Profile

One of the great pleasures of Cabernet-based wines is the graceful way they develop: the flavors unravel and the tannins calm down.

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

With a mature Cabernet, it's best to keep the food simple and really allow the wine to show. Feature straightforward dishes of suitable weight and style: a simple beef stew, an uncomplicated pot roast, or a plainly grilled veal or lamb chop to frame a developed Cabernet (one that has aged for at least eight years and perhaps for decades). 

Pairing Pointers

Cabernet Sauvignon works well:

  • With red meats. There's a good reason this pairing is a classic. For a twist on the obvious, select an older wine to accompany rarer cuts and, conversely, a wine that's youthful and juicy to go with longer-cooked meat or stews. 
  • With grilled foods. Grilling adds a bitter component to the food and creates a great stage for Cabernet's tannins. 
  • With bitter foods. From mustard greens to radicchio, from braised escarole to endive or roasted eggplant, bitter items pair well with Cabernet's tannins. 
  • With foods or treatments that pick up on the wine's oak character. Grilling, smoking, and plank roasting mirror oak's characteristics and its impact on wine. The incorporation of toasted or roasted nuts or a charred soy-honey glaze on meat will echo similar tastes in the wine. 
  • At countering fat. Creamy, buttery, or otherwise fat-laden dishes that coat the mouth with a light film of texture will be lovely with a chewy Cabernet. 
  • With black pepper. On steak, as a crust for tuna, or simply added generously but judiciously to a dish, pepper will tame Cabernet's tannic bite. This combination works best with younger wines.
  • With earthy and herbal elements: in particular, wines that stress similar flavors are complemented by fresh herbs and dark mushrooms. 

Cabernet Sauvignon does not work well: 

  • With delicate and subtle dishes. Its personality is just too bold. Think of placing a blowhard in the same room as a wallflower: it's a recipe for failure. 
  • With strong cheeses. Counterintuitively, the stronger the cheese, the less successful the match. Opt for milder cheeses that won't fight the wine for attention.
  • With most fish. Meatier, less oily fish are generally the best matches (ahi tuna, swordfish, shark).
  • With spicy-hot foods. The capsaicins create a storm by ratcheting up the perception of the wine's alcohol while accentuating the bitter and astringent nature of the tannins. 
  • With dishes that have no fat or protein (such as plain risotto or crudités). These may well accentuate the wine's bitterness. 
  • With most chocolate. Really. Never mind what you've heard. While bitter and semisweet chocolate can work well with a very ripe Cabernet (in a not-too-sweet mole sauce for example), most chocolate is simply too sweet for any dry red wine, and it never pairs well with more austere styles.