I've seen enough overheated reviews of blockbuster Cabernets that end with the food pairing wisdom that goes something like this: "And it has the tannins to stand up to a thick, juicy steak."
I've heard that some Mosel winemakers like their filet with Riesling, actually. And why not Chardonnay? With the contrarian hunch that food-pairing success might depend as much on the sauce, and the wine, as the cut of the main course, I matched up a New York steak—salt and pepper, nothing fancy; two minutes each side, eight in the oven—with creamy béarnaise sauce, a red wine and gravy sauce, and some wines I had on hand.
Charles Krug 2015 Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay ($21) Nothing musty about this cool, fresh-smelling Chardonnay—oak ice cream à la mode with sliced pear marinated in Meyer lemon juice—which is made by the granddaddy of Napa Valley wineries. Nothing "buttery" about it, either, until splashed in the wake of a morsel of unsauced steak, when streamers of caramelized pineapple and butterscotch candy light up the palate, playing off the salt and pepper of the rub. Béarnaise sauce sharpens the acidity nicely, while the wine-gravy concoction veers in a harsh, metallic direction. I might tire of sipping this rich but persistently woody wine by itself, but it seems custom-tailored for the béarnaise and steak pairing.
Hess Collection 2014 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($22) Another reasonably priced bottle from Napa Valley grapes, the slightly leesy (a yeast-derived aroma; sort of dairy, sort of dusty) and baked-apple-scented wine dances with roasted vegetables, and darn near turns into spicy Gewürztraminer with the béarnaise sauce—neutral Pinot Grigio with the wine sauce. More supple than the Krug, it passes the test as well.
Baldacci 2014 Sorelle Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay ($38) What I was looking for: the smell of the county fair, buttered popcorn and caramel candy apples, the flavor of oak-roasted butterscotch cookie. Nice wine, but the cream sauce actually mutes the sweet caramel of the wine, ending up no better a pairing than the zippier Krug.
Beringer 2013 Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($170) A top cuvée from another Napa icon, the inky purple PR smells like an oak-black currant chimera in full bloom, raining blackberry pomace-infused graham cracker crumbs over a bed of soft velvet. Béarnaise sauce sweetens the first sip, before tongue-numbing tannins glom on and don't let go. What a wine, but what a fail—for now. Put it back in the cellar. What coffee-encrusted, scorched, spit-roasted steak could stand up to this?