Cabernet Sauvignon Outside the Steakhouse

Cabernet Sauvignon sometimes gets the short end of the stick. Not when it comes to press, where it’s often heralded as the King of Red Wines thanks to examples from Napa and Bordeaux, but certainly when it comes to pairings.  Far too often Cabernet Sauvignon gets relegated to the steakhouse, even though this heavy hitter can highlight far more than filets.

Armed with a fantastic example of this grape from Chile’s Puente Alto Region, I decided to take on the Steakhouse-Only reputation of Cabernet Sauvignon via a 3-course meal where Don Melchor 2010 Puente Alto Cabernet Sauvignon would strut its stuff.

On the menu: Mushroom Risotto, Mexican-style Meatballs with Corn Salsa, and Semi-Sweet Chocolate-Covered Walnuts. These dishes all have elements that make them ideal parteners for a powerful, full-bodied wine like Cabernet Sauvignon: Fat to balance the weight of the wine; complimentary earthy flavors; and/or subtle sweetness. (Plus, they’re not steak.)



It was a bloody battle with the Don, but I won.

Now, for the wine. The Don Melchor Puente Alto is a repeat offender on the Wine Spectator Top 10 list, so I knew the 2010 would be up for the challenge.  After I battled the cork out of this one, I was thrilled that I’d opened the bottle when no one else was home.

Intense ruby in color, I was overwhelmed by its gorgeous floral nose accented by dark fruit aromas like black plum, cassis, and blackberry.  On the palate, this South American juice was muy caliente with great black fruit flavors, and hints of sage and sweet herbs.  The tannins were more mild than I expected, yet still present–opening it before cooking added another challenge, saving some for the actual meal.


Mushroom Risotto…never the most photogenic dish.

I started off with a mushroom risotto in hopes that the creamy, earthy elements in the rice would match the hefty weight of the Don Melchor. Generally, pairings where is the dish is as heavy or as light as the wine work well. In this case, that rule still held true–it was the favorite pairing of the night! The great flavor of baby bella mushrooms accented the wine’s blackberry flavors, and we barely had room for the main course.

Next up, beef albondigas (read: meatballs)  in a mild corn salsa.  It’s not usually a good idea to put spicy food with a high alcohol wine (The Don Melchor clocks in at 14.6% abv), because heat accents alcohol and ends up masking the flavors in a pairing.  However, that doesn’t mean you should go bland.  I used cumin and roasted garlic hear to add complexity without too much heat. In this pairing, the fruit and vanilla notes of the juice sang, and a crispy cabbage salad kept the entire dish refreshing.  The spiced, not spicy, rule make this pairing a slam dunk.

Dessert pairings with red wine tend to be tricky–most reds are dry, and combining them with sweet desserts can often make the wine seem bitter. Generally, when it comes to dessert, the wine should be at least as sweet than the dish being served.  Since the Don Melchor is a dry wine, I opted for semisweet chocolate and walnuts, which went great with the rich, berry-laden Don–though a stinky cheese would have been great as well.

And there you have it–you can eat well with Cabernet Sauvignon and it doesn’t have to be steak! I’ll certainly be rethinking my holiday table after this pairing adventure, and if you can get your hands on the Don, you should!

Cabernet Pairing Uncorked:

Laura Loves: Opening great wines like Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon and Tablas Creek Espirit de Tablas Blanc when nobody is home.

Anderra Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Central Valley for a lower-priced, still-delicious South American Cab.

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, which combines great recipes with tales from a family kitchen.

Fun Facts: Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon has made Wine Spectator’s Top 10 list 6 times in the last 10 years!

Cabernet Sauvignon is a hybrid of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

No-Fail Pairing Guidelines: If it grows together, it goes together. Match regional wines with traditional dishes.

Match weight with weight. Heavy wines and heavy dishes go together, the same works for light dishes and light wines.

Fat always helps.  (But really, it mellows out full-bodied and tannic wines).

Spice and Alcohol Don’t Mix. If you’re serving something spicy, go with a lower-alcohol white or red.


  • December 1, 2014
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