Hannah Crosbie's Week in Wine: Why it's time to stop paring Malbec with steak

 (Rebecca Munroe)
(Rebecca Munroe)

There are many undisputed pairings when it comes to food and wine. They are teachings are carved in stone, passed down from generation to generation like anger issues or a necklace. One endures as an icon: Malbec and steak.

Malbec with steak is a timeless pairing rule that even my parents are familiar with (a middle-aged couple living in the Midlands who don’t care about wine are a great barometer for this kind of thing). But I’m not Malbec’s biggest fan, and ordering red meat isn’t something I’m known to do either. It inevitably gets paired with something so oaky my mouth gets splinters, and afterwards, I feel I need to be horizontal for an amount of time I don’t feel comfortable writing down.

Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that red-meat mecca Smokestak created an own-label wine that doesn’t leave your tongue feeling like a suggestion of an organ. (I must confess, I’d never been to Smokestak before, despite living round the corner. I ignorantly assumed that because everyone else loved it, I wouldn’t. I've now been three times in the last month, tail between my legs.)

“When I started, I took all the Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon off the menu,” says their Head of Wine, Emily Acha Derrington. “This pairing is based on only one barbecue culture, but when you consider other places that enjoy barbecue around the world, you get to play with some cool, niche wines. Sometimes with something heavy, you need something with that acidity and brightness to just cut through.”

And cut through it does. The wine – aptly named Smokestak Red – is a steak wine, but not as you might know it. It’s bright, fresh, crunchy; words you’d use to describe your latest acquisition from the natty wine shop rather than your parents’ stalwarts. It comes from South African winemaker Jurgen Gouws via Wasted Wine Club, a business founded by Angelo Van Dyk that sells surplus wine from producers straight to the thirsty consumer, wrapped up in Insta-friendly, direct-to-consumer labels.

I’ve spoken about restaurant own-label wines before. Quite often, they’re bought in dizzying quantities, a saving which is sometimes passed onto the customer. But with the Smokestak Red, a significantly smaller amount is produced, and, when it runs out, there will be a four month lead time on the next batch. The wine isn’t the cheapest on the menu either because Emily says she isn’t keen on ordering an enormous volume to cut costs. Instead, she wants to create a wine she’s proud of.

Because of this, she lovingly jokes that the wine is a sort of “vanity project”, but I see it as more of an exercise in indulgence. On the grand scale of hospitality vanity projects, this places very modestly. You have the contacts, the passion, the ability to shift the wine and people who want to drink it: why the hell not? In any case, it’s a welcome change from the classics.

Smokestak House Red Blend x Jurgen Gouws 2023, £23.

Hannah Crosbie is a wine writer and author of Corker: A Deeply Unserious Wine Book, available now.