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Steak and Wine: Not Just a Great Pairing

“I’d like the porterhouse steak – seared rare. Can you recommend a great red wine with it?”

A big steak and a bold red wine is a familiar match made in taste bud heaven. The sinewy texture of beef mellows one’s perception of tannins, and rich flavors from beef render dry red wines more complex.

But there’s a bigger connection between red meat and red wine than just enjoying them together.

And no, they’re not just both red.

I recently caught up with Chris Figgins, owner of Lostine Cattle Co. and Figgins Family Wine Estates for a quick lesson on steak and wine. Delicious, right? Figgins grew up on his family’s internationally-acclaimed Leonetti Cellar, the first winery in Walla Walla, and started Lostine Cattle a few years ago.

I was curious how he “grew up a wine brat” and then became a cowboy. “The idea was born over many glasses of wine,” Chris tells me. And the comparison between a great vintage and a phenomenal steak is stronger than I ever imagined.

1.    Age: For centuries, wines have been aged in oak barrels to soften their tannins and add complexity to the flavor profile before they are bottled. While beef aging is measured in days, not years, the process has similar effects.

Like wine being aged in barrels, beef is dry-aged to soften texture and heighten flavor. After Lostine steer are slaughtered, their fresh carcasses are hung for 28 days. In a cool, humid environment, similar to a wine cellar, the meat actually loses moisture and its natural enzymes break down the connective tissue. The process is expensive – batches of ten steer take up half the space of a butcher’s cooler — but it makes a big difference. The steak connoisseur can look forward to two definitive qualities in this meat: tender flesh and a rich, intense beef flavor.

2.    Terroir: Lostine is located in Wallowa Valley, across the Blue Mountains from Walla Walla which boasts some of the best terroir for wine in the country. Surrounded by 10,000 foot snow-capped peaks, the mountainous pastures where Lostine cattle graze influence the flavor of the meat. Figgins, who has a degree in horticulture, analyzed his ranch’s “terroir” and found that grass in his valley is very high in protein. This pasture nourishes the cattle and ultimately improves the meat. His steer are great foragers: They eat different plants in the underbrush. Figgins affectionately refers to his healthy eaters as “shaggy goats” since they’re such voracious herbivores. This leafy, nutritious diet defines “you are what you eat.”

3.    Breed: Just as each grape varietal imparts a unique flavor to the wine, breeds of cattle affect the flavor and body (no pun intended) of beef. Chris chose Scottish Highland for their flavor. As an heirloom breed, without years of modern-day breeding for qualities like speed to market, the Scottish Highland take longer to reach their full weight. Figgins likens this slower gaining on the hoof to the time a great wine takes to mature.

Scottish Highlands also develop fat in a way that enhances the flavor of the beef. While most cattle develop a thick layer of fat around their ribcage as cold-weather insulation, Scottish Highlands have a full protective coat that keeps them warm and allows the fat to marble within the meat. Just as Merlot is thinner-skinned, which affects its ripening period and harvest, Scottish Highlands are thicker-insulated which changes their fattening period and ultimate flavor.

4.    Estate-grown: As the herd at Lostine Cattle Co. grows, the steers they take to market will have been born and raised on the property. Figgins’ goal is for his herd to be “100% estate grown.” Just as many great wineries grow their own grapes, Figgins intends for their herd of 150-something females and 5 bulls to eventually have all been raised from birth in the Wallowa Valley.

Chris once dreamed of “taking the estate-grown winery model and applying it to the beef business.” With Lostine Cattle Co., the relationship between steak and wine has never been stronger, and the ultimate outcome is a tasty one.

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