I'll never be a true Sacramentan, but after 15 years of living here I've picked up a few local habits. I don't complain about the heat, I'll turn around and drive back home if I can't find a parking place within a few steps of the restaurant I'd planned to visit, and I'll fire up the grill even on days when common sense suggests you are daft even to step outside, like yesterday.
But I'm on a mission - to find the best wine to go with tri-tip, the Sacramentan's favorite cut of beef for summertime grilling, with the possible exception of hamburgers.
At any rate, last night was the malbec round. Malbec is a red wine most closely identified with Argentina, where they also know something about grilling beef, so the two would seem to be a natural fit.
First, what kind of wine does malbec customarily yield? I don't know that I've had enough malbecs from Argentina to say confidently, but those I have had have tended to be juicy, meaty, dry and accessible, with a fruitiness that runs to small, perfectly ripe cherries.
The malbecs we tasted last night fit this profile, but they also stood out for a few other attributes: They had good acidity, their structure was firm without being hard, and they generally had little oak influence. By and large, they were wines of elegance and balance. They weren't huge and they weren't complex, but they were drinkable.
Two of them stood out with the tri-tip, which was pretty straightforward, without a lot of seasoning. I'd marinated the beef with chile peppers, roasted tomatoes, orange juice, cilantro, garlic and just a shot of tequila, all of which added only modest complexity to the meat, without too much spice to interfere with the wine.
As I have come to appreciate with other rounds in this tri-tip festival, the fruitiness of the wine and its oak is much less important than the wine's structure. To accompany tri-tip, a wine should have some backbone, but that doesn't mean rigid tannins. Tri-tip isn't a particularly rich or succulent cut of beef, especially when the fat is trimmed, as it generally has been in this series of tastings. The wine to go with tri-tip need not be jammy and fat, just pleasantly fruity; given malbec's typical grace, it's a pretty good choice if you are about to grill a two-pound or so tri-tip steak.
Bottom line: The two wines that were most impressive with last night's tri-tip were the Enrique Foster 2002 Mendoza Lujan De Cuyo Reserva Malbec ($25) and the Andeluna 2003 Mendoza Reserve Malbec ($23).
The Enrique Foster has pleasant sweet cherry fruit with a thin coating of chocolate. It's a big but gentle malbec, needing time to open and to express itself.
The Andaluna is denser in color and richer in flavor, but it isn't heavy. It tastes of bright cherries and ripe plums, with the sort of sharp acidity that made it a good companion with pieces of the tri-tip both lean and with an edge of fat.
Both wines are just starting to arrive in the country. The Enrique Foster is being distributed by Southern Wine Group, the Andeluna by Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd.