Merlot and Food Pairing
Ingredients and Styles
Because Malbec is a minor grape in Bordeaux and almost exclusively used as a minor component in blends, my comments here are tailored more to pure varietal Malbec and Malbec-driven blends than to traditional Bordeaux-style wines. Most dishes that demand "big" reds will pair nicely with these wines. In Argentina, if you're not eating pasta and pizza, you are likely eating asado, the traditional slow-grilled, grass-fed beef served with chimichurri sauce. Many red wines will pair nicely with this simple, tasty dish, but ample Argentine Malbec and Malbec-based wines can be especially successful.
Inky intensity and a rich fruit style complement Argentine beef, which has a stronger, beefier, more savory character than the corn-fed beef typically found in the United States. Accompanied with classic chimichurri (a sauce of garlic, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, and a little hot pepper flakes) it's both traditional and tasty. This is not to say that you must have Argentine beef or even grass-fed beef to make Malbec sing. Most cuts of red meat, from a juicy rib-eye steak to textured hanger or flank steak, are good, whether grilled over wood or with gas. Plates of sausage, marinated pork chops . . . you catch the drift.
Malbec pairs well with other gamey flavors too: lamb, squab, even venison. Tannic, sharper versions from France hang in there with rich stews, daubes, and even cassoulet, a specialty of southwest France, as well as with dishes from elsewhere that feature rich meats, beans, and sausage, sucg as American chili, Italian fennel sausage and white beans, and Portuguese bean soup flecked with ham.
You might guess from these pairings that Malbec isn't stellar with most fish, shellfish, and delicate dishes, and you'd be right. Regardless of country and appellation of origin, Malbec makes full-flavored wines and wines that simply demand more traditional red-wine pairings. Even chicken and lighter cuts of veal and pork can be overmatched by Malbec's robust character.
|Wine Style||Ingredients||Cuisines + Cooking Methods|
|New World style||Gamey, grass-fed beef, lamb, venison
Richer cuts of pork
Offal (liver, sweetbreads)
Big simply-prepared, pieces of meat with sauce on the side (such as a chimichurri sauce)
Empanadas, especially meat-filled
|Old World style||Beef, lamb, pork, sausages
|Meat-based rib-sticking, full-flavored stews, daubes, cassoulet, chili, meal-in-a-bowl soups
Slow-cook carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and incorporate them in a stew
Add a small amount of chopped prunes to the enhance richness of the stew and bridge to the wine
Methods of Cooking
New World Style Malbec
Inky, intense, robust, rich, exuberant black and red fruit, moderate tannin.
Cooking Methods and Ingredients
These robust wines pair well with hearty meat and game. Gamey, beefy, grass-fed meats do especially well. Avoid veal or lighter cuts of pork.
Old World Style Malbec
Inky, sharp acidity, full-flavored fruit with herbal notes, medium-plus tannin.
Cooking Methods and Ingredients
This big-structured wine is best enjoyed with food. It stands up to rich stews, daubes, cassoulet, American chili, Portuguese bean soup flecked with ham. A traditional dish in Cahors is rabbit with prunes, but just a small amount of fruit, so as not to overwhelm the wine. Slow-cooked root vegetables help concentrate sweetness, which makes them another welcome addition to a Malbec-friendly dish.
Malbec Pairs Well With:
- Big slabs of beef. If you don't happen to travel regularly to Argentina, grilling your own steaks and chops at home will be just fine. Mixed grills of sausage, meat, and offal (liver, sweetbreads, and the like) are delicious with Malbec.
- Rib-sticking stews. Traditional Gascon cassoulet with a wine from nearby Cahors is as classic a pairing grilled meats with New World Malbec. For the more tannic Malbecs, opt for dense, thick stews and meal-in-a-bowl soups. For riper and smoother versions, full-flavored but not so thick dishes are fine.
- Game and other flavor-packed meats. I love Malbec with venison, pheasant, partridge, and woodcock (which I sampled at the London restaurant of the chef whose recipe follows). And Malbec with lamb or a rich preparation of rabbit is fantastic.
- Rich root vegetables, or dried fruit with meat. A savory, meaty cassoulet is great, but you can also accentuate the ripe fruit in a Malbec with a slow-cooked dish incorporating carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas. Also, the deft addition of chopped or pureed prunes to a stew enhances richness and sweetness.
- Blue cheese. Don't ask me why, but these wines seem to contradict the rule that powerful wine is not good with powerful cheese. French Malbec is "mean" enough to hang in there with Roquefort, and a Gorgonzola dolcelatte is lovely with a ripe, fruit-forward New World Malbec. This wine is still not great with a strong Époisses or Alsatian Munster, but it works better than many.
Malbec Does Not Pair Well
- On its own. Old World interpretations, although often smooth, still need a little something to accompany them-a plate of charcuterie, classic South American empanadas, or even New York pizza. Yes, the very light styles can be enjoyed on their own, but even they are better with a nosh or two.
- With fish. Even the traditional Bordelais regional dish of eel with prunes doesn't hold up to a Cahors. And forget fishy fish or subtle white fish. If you want to serve Malbec with fish, select a rosé, or one of the many other wine options.
- With cream-based sauces. Ouch. Yes, the tannins are softened, but pairing dairy, aside from cheese, with these wines makes them taste disjointed.
- With most Asian fare. There are some meaty Asian dishes that can be delightful with Malbec, especially the New World styles: Korean short ribs, Chinese lacquered duck, and beef teriyaki. But there are far more recipes that don't, like shrimp with lobster sauce or spicy kung pao chicken. Opt for easier reds, off-dry whites, or rosés instead.
- With delicate white meat and mild poultry. The pairing can be okay, but most Malbecs will overwhelm your typical sautéed chicken, pork or veal scaloppine, or oven-roasted quail. New World Malbec may go down easily, but it packs a punch and can easily overshadow milder dishes.