If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing food and wine pairing, it’s hard to go wrong with Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley. Many of these wines are powerful, high in alcohol, and fruit-forward, balanced by bracing acidity and prominent oak. The finest Napa Valley Cabernet is bold and acidic enough to stand up to the heartiest dishes but also complex and interesting enough to serve on its own or with simple hors d’oeuvres. It’s very easy to find a great Napa Cabernet food pairing and there are a few classic pairings every wine enthusiast should try at least once. The foods in this pairing guide will bring out the best flavors in your Cabernet Sauvignon; we’ll also suggest some more unusual pairings that are sure to impress your dinner guests.
Pairing Napa Cabs with Food: The Basics
Contrary to what some casual wine drinkers believe, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t always have to taste like a high-octane fruit bomb. Wines from this region are varied and versatile. While some lower quality Cabernet can be extremely high in alcohol and have overbearing fruit flavors, quality Napa Cabernet is generally more complex and refined. In fact, more complex wines often pair better with food, as the right pairing can bring out subtle flavors in the wine that might need to be coaxed out. So, if you plan on serving Cabernet Sauvignon at a special occasion or dinner, consider opening a wine with deep, layered flavors. Napa producers like Alpha Omega, Opus One, and Joseph Phelps are known for making food-friendly Cabernet wines of exceptional quality and depth of flavor.
Some wines are distinctly “New World” in style, meaning that they are high in alcohol, ripe, and heavily oaked (usually in new American oak, which can give the wine a prominent vanilla flavor).
Even among the best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines, there is plenty of variation in flavor and style. Some wines are distinctly “New World” in style, meaning that they are high in alcohol, ripe, and heavily oaked (usually in new American oak, which can give the wine a prominent vanilla flavor). These are rich, powerful wines that should be served with equally robust foods. Some producers that make this style of wine include Shafer, Schrader, and Scarecrow.
Other winemakers from Napa are influenced by Old-World producers and winemaking techniques. These wines are more acidic, delicate, and less heavily oaked. The acidity in these Cabs means that they pair well with fattier dishes, as the acid helps them cut through rich foods. They also pair well with lighter fare like salads or roasted vegetables. Some producers known for making “Old World” style wines are Corison, Frog’s Leap, and Diamond Creek. However, it’s important to note that even these wines don’t taste exactly like fine Old-World Bordeaux. They are still Napa Valley wines, so the ideal food pairings for these wines are not the same as those for Bordeaux wines.
Classic Napa Cabernet Food Pairings
When in doubt, hearty dishes almost always pair well with Napa Cabernet, whether the producer was influenced by New-World or Old-World winemaking techniques. That’s because Napa Valley is a relatively warm winegrowing region that produces very ripe grapes. The Cabernet grape is also thick-skinned and naturally very acidic. In the warm Napa sun, the fruit develops concentrated flavors, resulting in wines that are often quite intense on the palate—both sweet and acidic. For this reason, many wine enthusiasts prefer to serve their best wines with a flavorful meal that won’t get completely overpowered. You will also want to consider tannin levels when you look for the perfect Napa Cabernet food pairing. Most of these wines are very tannic, especially in their youth. Fatty dishes are an ideal pairing for young Napa wines with prominent tannins, as the bitter tannin is a compelling contrast against sweet fats and oils.
With this in mind, here are a few classic Napa Cabernet food pairings you should try at your next meal:
|Pairings for Bold, Concentrated Cabs
|Pairings for Light, Acidic Cabs
|Dishes containing rosemary. This herb brings out the earthiness in Napa Cabs. Try: 2016 Maybach Family Cabernet Sauvignon Materium Weitz Vineyard
|Dishes containing mint. This herb brings out the subtle menthol flavor that some lighter-bodied Cabs have. Try: 2016 Grace Family Cabernet Sauvignon
|Gorgonzola cheese. This cheese has a bold flavor that can stand up to intense Cabs. Try: 2016 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard
|Camembert cheese. This rich, fatty cheese contrasts nicely with an acidic Cabernet. Try: 2012 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder
|Ribeye steak. This hearty dish complements a hearty wine. Try: 2016 Joseph Phelps Insignia
|Roasted lamb with mint. This dish brings out the mint flavors in the wine and also contains enough fat to stand up to acidic styles. Try: 2011 Grace Family Cabernet Sauvignon Blank Vineyards
|Vegetarian Main Course
|Roasted potatoes with rosemary. Buttery potatoes pair well with the sweet fruit in the wine, while rosemary brings in some earthiness. Try: 2014 Bevan Cabernet Sauvignon Wildfoote Vineyard Vixen Block
|Roasted broccoli and wild rice. Cabernet is one of the relatively few wines that pair well with green vegetables, especially when the vegetables are served with a hearty, starchy carb. Try: 1995 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon
|Bittersweet chocolate. Many of the most powerful Napa Cabs contain notes of chocolate. These wines are also sweet enough to complement bitter dark chocolate desserts. Try: 2015 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon To Kalon Vineyard Reserve
|Blackberry or raspberry desserts. These desserts will match the fruit flavors in the wine. However, you should choose tart fruit desserts, as the wine is still fairly acidic. Try: 2006 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
Generally, when pairing a Napa Cab with food, you can’t go wrong with earthy herbs, fatty cheeses, hearty red meats, buttery carbs, or semisweet desserts. These are classics for a reason. If you’re looking for Napa Cabernet food pairings that are a little less expected, however, take a look at the recommended pairings below.
Unusual—But Utterly Delicious—Food Pairings
One way to make Cabernet Sauvignon really stand out at a tasting party or dinner is to pair it with a dish your guests may not expect. Here are a few memorable Napa Cabernet food pairings for wine enthusiasts who want to try something new.
|Pairings for Bold, Concentrated Cabs
|Pairings for Light, Acidic Cabs
|Herbs and Seasonings
|Dishes containing juniper berries. This tart fruit pairs well with bold, somewhat sweet red wines and fatty red meat dishes. Try: 2008 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
|Dishes containing lavender. This herb highlights some of the floral qualities found in lighter Napa Cabernet. Try: 2015 Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain
|Grilled radicchio. A slightly bitter food, when radicchio is grilled it becomes sweeter. These bittersweet notes contrast nicely with the flavors in fruit-forward Cabs. Try: 2004 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville
|Arugula and walnut salad. Arugula is slightly peppery, which matches the slight spice in the wine. Walnuts are fatty and nutty, which makes an intriguing pairing with a Napa Cab. Try: 2013 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon
|Roasted duck. Duck is fattier and gamier than other types of poultry, so it goes very well with full-bodied reds. Try: 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
|Seared tuna. Tuna is an oily fish that is best paired with an acidic red wine to cut through the fat. Try: 2011 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace
|Vegetarian Main Course
|Caramelized brussels sprouts. Allowing the vegetables to caramelize brings out deeper flavors and makes them slightly sweeter, which complements fruit-forward wines. Try: 2013 Opus One
|Portabella mushroom. The earthiness in the mushroom brings out the earthiness in the wine. Try: 2006 Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon Annum
|Espresso ice cream. The bitter coffee notes temper the sweetness of the ice cream, making it easier to pair this dessert with a fruit-forward Napa Cab. Try: 2016 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon One Point Five
|Hazelnut cake. Hazelnuts are rich and flavorful and bring out some earthy, nutty qualities in Napa Cabs, especially aged ones. This pairing works best when the cake itself isn’t too sweet. Try: 2012 Jones Family Cabernet Sauvignon
As you can see, you don’t have to serve Napa Cabernet only with red meat and potatoes. More unusual ingredients bring out subtle flavors in these wines that can be hard to identify otherwise.
How to Choose the Perfect Food Pairing for Your Napa Wine
There are many other excellent Napa Cabernet food pairings out there. As long as you follow a few general guidelines, you can pair these wines with many of your favorite dishes. A few basic rules to keep in mind are:
- Identify complementary flavors. Almost all Napa Cabs pair well with rich, flavorful dishes. Read the wine’s tasting notes to find notes you like and look for dishes with those same notes.
- Identify contrasting flavors. For instance, sweet, fruit-forward Cabs pair well with bitter vegetables, while bitter, tannic young Cabs can be balanced out by buttery or fatty foods.
- New-World-style Cabs pair better with desserts than Old-World-inspired Cabs, as New-World-type wines are generally sweeter and more fruit-forward.
- Be more cautious when pairing an older Napa Cabernet (usually 15-20 years or older). Sharp cheeses, fresh fruit, and dishes with high fat content can be too strong in flavor for a delicate, elegant aged wine. Pair these with softer, earthier foods like mushrooms, nuts, or dried fruit, as the wine itself often develops these flavors over time.
Another idea is to serve multiple Napa Cabernet wines at different stages of the meal. You might serve an aged wine with simple hors d’oeuvres, then serve a bolder, full-bodied Cab with the hearty main course. Later, you can cap the night off with a chocolate dessert and a sweet, fruit-forward Cab with silky tannins. Pairing fine Napa Cabernet wine with food is one of the best ways to enjoy your collection, especially if you have bottles of all ages in your cellar. Fine Cabernet is meant to be savored, and with the perfect Napa Cabernet food pairing, you’ll appreciate every sip.
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