Look up the recipe for Coq au Vin in Larousse and it advises using a Chambertin or a Mercurey. Helpful or what? A Chambertin will set you back £50 or more and even a Mercurey will be £10-£15 a bottle. So what do you do? Simple. Drink burgundy; don’t cook with it.
Thus began my tips on which wines to use in cooking in The Sunday Times in late 2004; hence the prices. Although later editions of Larousse Gastronomique (mine was a trusty 1989 edition) became less prescriptive about the wine, my advice remains the same today as then: drink red burgundy; don’t lob it into the cooking pot.
Here are my simple rules of thumb for suitable cooking wines: • If you can't drink it, don't cook with it. It's got to be in reasonable condition: not corked (i.e. musty tasting) or have been hanging around oxidising in an opened bottle. • You definitely don’t have to cook with the same wine as you’re drinking (and vice versa), though more often than not you stick to the same colour. • For coq au vin and any other red wine-simmered casserole all you need is a fairly full-bodied red in sound condition. A Côtes du Rhône, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Garnacha or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would all do nicely. • If you want to save leftover wine for cooking, keep it tightly stoppered in the fridge and use within a week. If there’s less than half a bottle, you could decant it into a smaller bottle, but pour gently – you don't want to aerate it unnecessarily. • If you only want small amounts of wine to finish sauces, freeze wine in cubes in an ice-tray to have at the ready. • Quality and style are most important when the wine is uncooked (e.g. in a syllabub) or the wine is one of only a few, fairly delicate ingredients. These are often dishes using white – risotto for example. Acidity is important here: when wine is being cooked, you concentrate the acid, so beware wines such as sauvignon blanc. Equally, you must avoid overly oaky, fruity or buttery whites (Chardonnay can fall into this trap). Where the wine isn’t cooked, aromatic grapes such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Torrontes come into their own. • As for colour, the main differences between white and red are acid and body. Red wines are usually more suitable for long, slow cooked dishes, but it doesn’t always matter (see 7-hour leg of lamb). Sometimes, colour is just a matter of appearance in the finished dish: you choose. • Rosé is a half-way house. If colour and body are critical, use red. If acidity is crucial, use white. Otherwise pink is fine, but note that some modern rosés are jammily fruity - a deep/bright pink colour is often a signal.
Amber-alert wines High-acid whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc and dry Riesling, in delicate dishes. Very oaky wines, especially whites: oak flavours get in the way. Tannic reds, i.e. young reds that have a harshly dry, grainy, gum-gripping feel when you drink them. Jammy, tutti-frutti wines, especially chardonnay and merlot.
Marinades - flexible friends Wine marinades are the cook’s friend: they not only flavour meat or fish, they can tenderise it or stop it drying out; and they’re infinitely variable. You can play around, adding onions, lemon or vinegar, spices such as juniper or mustard seed, or soy sauce. Here’s my starter for ten: • 4 tbsp olive oil • 3 tbsp red, white or pink wine • 1 or more cloves of garlic, chopped
• Sprigs of herbs such as thyme
• 1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
Mix together, add the meat or fish and coat thoroughly. Leave for at least two hours, putting it in the fridge if you’re going to marinate it for longer, e.g. overnight. (If your kitchen is hot, you may need to put it in the fridge at the outset).
3 things to watch out for when you’re choosing wine to accompany food: Sweet ingredients, such as fresh or dried fruit, in savoury dishes: they make dry wine taste thinner and sharper. Acid salad dressings and relishes: you’ll need to drink a white wine with complementary high acidity or the wine will taste flat and dull. Tomatoes: both fresh and sun-dried are more acid than you think and will affect wine in the same way as a vinegary vinaigrette.