WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT COOKING WITH WINE

Few topics have polarised the foodie community as much as cooking with fine wine. Separately, food and wine are ancient practices – each revered, respected and beloved in their own right. But their love affair – their pairing both in and out of the dish – is just as timeless. How will you choose the right wine for cooking that impressive dinner for two and at what point are you just wasting good wine?

by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen and Hanfred Rauch

The Sommelier’s Perspective

“I’m a cheapskate,” says Higgo Jacobs, leading South African sommelier and founder and chairman of the South African Sommelier Association (SASA), “But not when it comes to wine. What makes a wine expensive is its detail, it’s flavour profile and its nuances.”

According to Higgo, the rules of cooking with wine are simple – if you’ve paid a premium for a fantastic bottle of wine, why would you want to reduce the experience to a mere conversation between acid and tannins? “It’s about the classic recipes and what they ask for,” he says. “For a Coq au vin, a chef might use a village-level (entry level) Pinot Noir, and for an Ossobuco; an inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc. Otherwise it’s a waste of money.”

He agrees, however, that certain dishes call for an expensive wine. “Not all dishes are hot, boiled food, like casseroles,” he says, “A good example would be a berry compote made with Vin de Constance. The wine is never cooked, it’s set in jelly, so you have to use the original wine because you can still taste the detail.”

Michael Schmitt, celebrated sommelier at Restaurant Jan and expert on European wine, says, "As a sommelier you always try your best to create a balance between the food and the wine. It is my belief that cooking with wine must be approached in the same way. Finding the correct wine to accommodate the correct ingredients is very necessary."

Like Higgo, Michael believes that there are limits to how far one should go in choosing a good cooking wine. "Sure, if a recipe calls for white wine, it doesn't mean you would have to go all out with a Meursault (Burgundy Chardonnay) or if it calls for red, you don't have to go with a Châteaux Margaux (Grand Cru Classée Bordeaux)," says Michael, "But why wouldn't you give the proper attention to the raw ingredients that will make your recipe come to life?"

Michael's opinion on whether or not wine loses its integrity when it is cooked differs somewhat from Higgo's. "Of course alcohol evaporates," he says, "but the aroma and flavour remains - and that is all important."

The Winefarmer's/maker's Perspective

Karl Lambour from Tokara Wine Estate in Stellenbosch grew up with Keith Floyd on television and his rustic appreciation of the finer things in life has influenced him more than he would care to admit. "Cooking with wine always invokes a sense of hedonism in me," he says, "I try to accomplish the preparation of the meal with the best wine in the dish - but also in the glass.

"I am a big fan of what red wine does to robust casseroles and dark, thick and syrupy jus’ and, unfortunately, less enthusiastic about the effect that white wines have on lighter cream sauces," says Karl.   

For Carolyn Martin, co-owner of the innovative wine estate, Creation Wines – situated on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge near Hermanus – cooking with wine is a way of life. “I grew up using the wine I’m going to drink in my food,” she says, adding, “I can’t imagine cooking risotto, for instance, with a crap wine.”

According to Carolyn, food and wine form as natural a partnership in the kitchen as they do on the table. “At Creation about 70% of our dishes have wine as a component, whether as a flavouring agent in marinades, a pickling agent, for poaching or braising, or in a sauce or jus. We also use it in bread and to create wine salt.” In other words, Carolyn is enamoured of wine in all its forms, whether used in a dish or paired with it.

Winemakers of the Cape - Image by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Winemakers of the Cape - Image by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

The Foodie's perspective

Peter Veldsman, an institution in the South African food world says, “The better the wine, the better the dish!” He explains that the combination of wine and food can enhance or even cause major disasters at times! "In the South African context, a little dry white wine will do wonders for any stew. Take waterblommetjie stew as an example. The waterblommetjies lack in almost every vitamin and mineral, also in the basic tastes like sweet, savoury, bitter, acidic and a bit of burn (chilli), but once you have adjusted the seasoning the wine lifts this peasant dish to gourmet heights! On the other hand, too much tannic red wine in the marinade for venison will not contribute to excellence. Buttermilk will do a better job."

Veldsman adds that when it comes to desserts, sweet wines, liqueurs and spirits are a must. One of the greatest dessert sauces is simply to whisk egg yolks and muscadel together. A traditional British fruit cake (and for that matter, also a steamed Christmas Pudding) without brandy or whisky will warm no single heart.

Even though on the surface, opinions may seem to vary on the fundamentals of cooking with wine, their viewpoints are often surprisingly similar. So, taking all perspectives into consideration, what are the rules, if there are any, for cooking with wine?

5 Things you should know about cooking with wine

1.    If you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it

Imagine using a sprig of thyme in your dish that grew in unfavourable conditions – baking in the hot sun alongside a busy highway, for instance. Whatever character a particular herb embodies will inform the taste of the dish. Wine, as an ingredient, is no different.

“As soon as you cook with wine, you lose 95% of its character,” states Higgo, “Only acid and tannins remain, which lend the food a unique taste.” In other words, if the wine is no good to begin with, cooking it will not change that. Affirming Higgo’s point of view, Carolyn's personal rule is that, “If it won’t balance in the bottle, it won’t balance in the dish.”

“You’re still going to look for a good quality wine,” says Higgo. “Look for a wine that is well balanced – one that is not too sharp (tannin-rich) or acidic. I always have a bag-in-box wine in my house and it’s what restaurants have in their kitchens – a good, inexpensive option.”

2.    Cook as you would pair

The layman’s rule is to pair white wines with fish and red wines with red meat. It’s safe but very limiting. While serious wine pairing is often seen as a mystical process – a practice best left to the wine shamans – the science behind it is rather straightforward and allows for a great deal of personal interpretation.

When it comes to the taste experience, we are influenced by three things – structure, texture and flavour. The structure of food or wine comes down to its sweetness, sourness, saltiness or bitterness. A dish’s texture is usually either light and delicate or rich and dense. The flavour spectrum is seemingly infinite and can evoke such descriptions as nutty, earthy, smoky, spicy or fruity.

But as Higgo points out, “Wine pairing is not about single flavours. Most good chefs won’t usually start with the flavour. They’ll start with the texture of the food.”

Food’s texture is often perceived as soft, smooth, rich, creamy, chewy, oily or harsh. Texture is paired with the body of a wine – determined by its concentrations of tannin and alcohol. Light-bodied wines are usually paired with delicate foods and heavy-bodied wines with chewy, rich food with a robust texture – or fatty food.

“The word, tannery, comes from the word, tannin,” says Carolyn, “It’s what they use to soften leather. Tannins break down the fibres in the protein to make the meat more tender and digestible. Acid breaks down the fat. It’s part of the reason the French are so skinny!”

3.    Consider your heritage

“There are classic recipes or regional dishes requiring specific wines, or wines of a certain style, to create a particular effect,” says Carolyn. According to Higgo, Coq au vin classically calls for a Burgundy-style red, but across France, the recipe has been adapted to reflect the character of the wines grown in their various regions.

Coq au vin jaune, for instance, is native to the Jura department in eastern France. Coq Au Riesling, true to the region’s German influence, hails from Alsace. In the Burgundy region, Coq Au Pourpre (or Coq Au Violet) is often prepared using Beaujolais Nouveau, a famous red wine from the Beaujolais appellation. Perhaps inevitably, no self-respecting Champagne-region restaurant’s menu could be complete without Coq au Champagne.

In other words, what’s stopping anyone from creating a Coq au Pinotage? Finding inspiration in your heritage – remaining true to your roots – will turn every mouthful into an exciting, personal journey.

4.    Less is more

Most experts agree that wine should be seen as a flavour enhancer and not as the main feature of the dish. It is there to add another dimension to the food and should be used in the same way as one might use olive or truffle oils, vinegars, herbs and spices.

Mussels cooked in white wine is a prime example. “We use a small amount of wine in this dish, add herbs and aromatic vegetables and let the mussels steam in this,” says Carolyn. “We then make a sauce from the stock, adding butter, egg yolks and cream, which makes the liquid a little less salty and adds a creamy texture.”

Higgo recently worked with chef Bertus Basson at the Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, where Bertus made a Guava Crème Brulée with Rosé sparkling wine. “Guava is the kind of fruit where its aroma fills your entire house, even when there’s only one guava in a bowl of apples,” he says, “Everything about the dessert just worked – the matching pinks, the taste, the aromas.”

Karl Lambour, on the other hand, feels that there is an exception to the less-is-more rule. "There is nothing better than emptying (with a little subtraction for the chef) a bottle of fine vintage port into a homemade beef or veal stock and seeing the wondrous alchemy that ensues," he says, adding, "And the delicious stickiness that coaxes even more flavour out of the dish it cohabits."

But Karl offers a word of caution: Cooking with wine takes time and is more than worth the wait. "The mellow attributes and richness it imparts cannot be obtained with haste or impatience – that leaves you with a rawness that is downright unpleasant and, frankly, a waste of wine."

5.    Know where to aim

Although the camp is divided between those who believe that cooking with fine wine is a sin and those who say, “Let it flow,” Higgo and Carolyn find common ground when it comes to the price tag of a suitable cooking wine. Deciding what price to put on a suitable cooking wine is not easy. For one thing, it depends on where you buy it. But both Carolyn and Higgo have settled on somewhere in the vicinity of R85 a bottle.

Michael, however, takes an admittedly French approach on the matter. "Budget is important as well, but as we say in France, 'A Boeuf Bourguignon cannot be made with Bordeaux Wine,'" he muses. In other words, if the meal asks for it, who can refuse it?

Peter Veldsman, perhaps unsurprisingly, agrees with Michael. "One of my favourite winter dishes is Beef Burgundy. I use a light Pinot Noir to which I add one part heavy Cinsaut to marinade and cook the beef," he says. "Without very good beef stock (and I reduce it by half before I use it), this classic dish can come across as wishy-washy. The marriage of wine and stock is what it is all about," Veldsman says, "Get it right and you deserve as good a Pinot Noir as you can afford. And those incredible sherries of Spain are ingredients and drink all at the same time."

In essence, there appears to be no hard-and-fast rule to choosing the right wine for cooking a wine-infused dish. As with any creative endeavour, beauty is in the eye - or in this case, the palette - of the beholder. Just how much you should spend on a wine to add magic to a dish is up to you, but in general, you don't need an absolute top-end wine to make a dish shine. 

Quick FACTS

Coq au vin

  • Origin: France (region unknown)
  • Ingredients: Braised chicken with wine (typically red Burgundy), mushrooms and garlic (optional).
  • Versions: Varies by region and is made using local varietals, such as Riesling (Alsace), Beaujolais Nouveau (Beaujolais appellation) and Champagne.

Ossobuco

  • Origin: Milan
  • Ingredients: Cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, dry white wine and broth.
  • Versions: Often garnished with gremolata and traditionally served with Risotto Alla Milanese. Some modern versions are made with tomatoes, carrots, celery and onions.

Waterblommetjie Stew

  • Origin: Western Cape, South Africa. (The Khoikhoi people first taught early settlers to make the dish, which they also considered to be a medicine.)
  • Ingredients: Meat (typically lamb) and waterblommetjies (small water flowers).
  • Versions: Often made with mutton, Cape sorrel, onions, potatoes, salt and pepper.