Corned Beef Begs for Bubbly


The shamrocks are out in force this week, with St. Paddy’s Day on us this Sunday. And to ward off any threat of green beer (makes me shudder), we devised a tasting in our test kitchen here at Sunset to nail the right wine to uncork with corned beef this weekend.

It’s not a simple pairing. With corned beef you have, well, beef to deal with at the core of the dish, so you need a wine with enough heft to stand up to that. Complicating things, the beef is shot through with sweet and savory spices (like cardamom and allspice and thyme)—and lots of salt. And for our tasting, we muddied the pairing waters even more by using a favorite Sunset recipe that adds a brown sugar–mustard glaze. (It’s yummy, and the whole thing can be done in the oven.)

I went with my heart for the first wine we tried: a Brut Rosé. I love bubbles with salty, spicy things. Together they create buzz; the flavors in both the wine and the foods pop. Plus, bubbles give the wine more texture, so sparklers might stand up to the beef—especially this style of bubbly, which is made mostly out of Pinot Noir. Here’s how our pairing went down:

Roederer Estate Multivintage Brut Rosé (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; Anderson Valley, $28):

I have to admit this is one of my favorite sparkling wines in California. Tart red fruit, like Rainier cherries, are subtly seasoned with warm Pinot spices (look for cloves), but the crisp acidity of Chardonnay makes the whole package dance.

It worked! The wine and the beef shared the same spice rack, while the bubbles made the salt an asset instead of a liability. Never doubt that a pink wine can stand up to red meat. The hint of tannins acquired by the little time Brut Rosé spends on the skins are a friend to beef.

Now on to reds—still Pinot Noir first:

Reata 2010 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, $30):

Of the three reds we tried, this is the one I’d happily drink a glass of on its own. On the nose, it has a hint of red licorice ropes, cranberry, cherry, clove, and coriander. And on the palate, it offers up the full gamut of warm spice and fruit that comes from full skin-on fermentation.

With the corned beef, however, the still Pinot lacked the guts, and the texture, of the sparkling wine. The same flavors lurked here as in the brut rosé (on a much less subtle scale), but the wine was just too silky and delicate for the spiced beef.

Standing Sun 2010 Grenache (Santa Ynez Valley; $28):

A touch of menthol and cedar joins with black pepper and ripe (and maybe a little too soft) red cherry fruit, for a little bit of a spiced-wine spin.

I picked Grenache because I thought its classic cherry-and-spice flavors would hold up to the beef. And with this one, my initial doubts that the wine had enough acidity to hold up to the salty beef were cleared right up—it was a very good pairing (surprising to me that I liked it better than the Pinot partnership).

Macchia 2010 “Outrageous” Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi; $24):

This is Zin all the way. It’s intense, concentrated, and on its way to being jammy, with lots of pepper, berries, chocolate, and hints of violets.

I purposely picked a Zin that hovered at 16-percent alcohol as a challenge: hot wines can be hard on food; I thought the concentration of flavors from the 80-plus-year-old vines this wine is from might pull it out. On its own, the wine was lovely and balanced (even with that alcohol on steroids). But with the beef, it needed more acidity. The fruit actually got a little ugly in the face of all that salt.

Conclusion: Go for a sparkling rosé, Grenache, or both this weekend. And do try this corned beef recipe.


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