Pairing Wines with Montana’s Favorite Wild Meats
“Elk spend much of their lives grazing in the forests for grasses, mushrooms, and berries, and that definitely changes the flavor of the meat,” says Bryan Cross, Chef du Cuisine at Rainbow Lodge in Yellowstone Club. “I like doing a preparation with something that’s in their natural diet, blackberry or marionberry reductions, and the fruitiness really complements the meat’s flavor.” The same complementary logic holds true when choosing wine, and this is an increasingly hot topic in the Big Sky region, where game meats virtually unheard of in some parts of the country can be found on most restaurant menus—as well as in home kitchens and on backyard grills. Elk, bison, trout, the occasional game bird, venison, and beef varieties such as Montana-raised grass-fed and Wagyu are choices diners see here on a daily basis. Berry flavors are common in fruity red wines, and Cross recommends pinot noir or its classic Old World form, Burgundy, with elk and bison. Trevor Holland, bar manager and resident wine expert at Everett’s 8800, atop the Big Sky ski resort, agrees: “Pinot noir would go fantastically with any of these game meats, even duck, especially if you don’t like more full-bodied wines.” But Holland’s top personal choice for elk, which has stronger flavors than bison, is another fruit forward varietal, the slightly more full-bodied merlot. But you don’t have to get too prescriptive or limiting. “If there are Italian flavors or ingredients in the preparation, consider Sangiovese or Chianti. What I like about all of these wines is that they are readily available.” This is important because for those visiting the area who may not have had elk before, Holland suggests going with a wine you are familiar with. “If you’re trying something for the first time, having it with a wine you already like is a great idea, you don’t want to sit down to two unknown quantities.”
Cabernet sauvignon is the steakhouse classic for pairing with beef, and also offers up a lot of berry flavor, but interestingly, few experts recommend it with game meats, which across the board are notably less fatty than the USDA Prime or Choice grain-fed beef most top urban steakhouses specialize in. Among popular reds, cabernet has one of the highest levels of tannins, which are great at cutting through fat, and it is generally high in alcohol, which is what defines body in wine and gives it a big, thick, “chewy” mouthfeel. But without the fat in leaner game meats, these characteristics can overpower the more delicate flavors. “Compared to beef, bison is leaner, and elk is even leaner than that,” said Everett’s Chef du Cuisine Chris McCracken. “Even with beef, few Montana ranches now use grain, and most of the meat around here is farm to table, grass-fed, also leaner than people are used to.” The notable exception, common on area menus, would be domestically raised Japanese breeds, or Wagyu beef, which occupies the most heavily marbled end of the red meat spectrum, and calls for a big tannic wine to offset all the fat. It is something several Montana ranches specialize in, and Rainbow Lodge serves an extremely popular Wagyu burger. “Wagyu tends to have more marbling,” said Yellowstone Club Director of Beverage Ben Foster. “This speaks less to the amount of fat and more towards how beautifully integrated it is. As a result, with many beef dishes, you are looking for a bold, rich wine, like Napa Cabernet. With a Wagyu burger, you can actually work with something lush and powerful, but a bit more delicate, that will complement the fat rather than blow it away. For that I would suggest a Burgundy [pinot noir] from a high-quality producer, like the 2018 Taupenot Merme Gevry-Chambertin.” If you do opt for a Wagyu steak instead of a burger, you’ll probably want to step up to a cabernet. On the other hand, grass-fed beef, also extremely popular with local artisan ranchers, is lean and much closer to bison. In Argentina and Uruguay, the two nations with the highest beef consumption on earth—virtually all of it grass-fed—malbec, not cabernet, is the preferred wine. All of the reds suggested by local experts, especially merlot, pinot noir and syrah, have very similar characteristics, fruity and medium to medium/full bodied. Of these, pinot is the lightest bodied and with gamier meats, elk and especially venison, the fuller bodied grapes also pair well. Most chefs are quick to point out that it is often the preparation that affects wine pairing more than the protein itself, and this is especially true with fish, where sommeliers often pair to the sauce, not the meat. Trout is the most popular in Montana, but there are many kinds and infinite recipes. “Trout is a very lean fish, much less fatty than salmon, and there are a dozen different species within a few hundred miles of Big Sky,” said McCracken. In the backyard, trout can be simply seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled, and served with potato and a veggie, but in better restaurants it often gets a much more ornate presentation. At the Rainbow Lodge, Chef Cross’ recipe has become a popular signature dish: Ruby Red Idaho trout with sautéed rainbow chard, a brandied brown butter sauce, and a lemon, coffee, and caper relish. If you are scanning the menu and pick this, suddenly there’s a lot going on, and choosing a wine can become confusing. Foster says, “The ideal pairing for me would be a New World Chardonnay that is opulent, but not without backbone. Specifically, I think the 2019 Aubert ‘Hyde & Sons’ Chardonnay would complement this dish perfectly. This wine is marked by its ability to have round edges, warm spiced-fruit, and pronounced minerality that both complement the brown butter of the dish while being reserved just enough not to overpower the fish.”
Holland agrees: “Chablis, 100 percent chardonnay, is exactly what I’d have with trout, especially any weightier presentation. But one of my favorite varietals in the world is Riesling, and I don’t think you could go wrong with an Alsatian Riesling either. All these choices are the textbook picks, wines that have been known to pair consistently and successfully with elk, bison, trout and other game, but if there’s an ingredient that overpowers everything it gets harder.” Examples range from curry to truffles to hot peppers. That’s why your first move when choosing wine to go with game in a restaurant, especially a more complex dish, should probably be to ask for the sommelier. But if you are left to your own devices or are cooking at home, Chef McCracken has an almost foolproof system. “It’s always good to serve the wine you cooked with, then you get to taste it twice, in two different ways. One of the things we’re implementing this winter at Everett’s is cooking with the same wines we offer by the glass.” He often cooks local trout with a reduction of local cherries and port wine, then suggests trying the same port. While this might be beyond many home cooks, almost all steak-type cuts of red meat go well with port or red wine sauces, which are as simple as deglazing the pan you cooked the meat in with red wine and butter plus chopped shallots, garlic or onions, salt and pepper. A quick wine-based pan sauce is an easy out for the home chef. Likewise, many game dishes, from elk to duck to trout, go well with a berry sauce or reduction, and it’s easy to add wine to these. If you serve the same wine, you have an instant pairing.
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