A basic introduction to wine, plus pairing suggestions to make every dinner special.
Chardonnay is a versatile wine grape: its flavour and aromas are easily influenced by where it’s grown and how it’s made. Fruit flavours range from apple and lime in cooler climates to tropical fruits in warmer places. When barrelled in oak, it takes on a richness characterized by honey and butter flavours. When barrelled in stainless steel, it often retains more mineral flavours and comes across as fresher on the palate. Chardonnay excels in Burgundy, France.
Riesling is a crisp, clean wine with green apple, pear and lime flavours. The best offer pleasing mineral qualities as well. With age, Riesling takes on honey flavours and attractive oily aromas. Riesling grows well in Germany, the Alsace region of France, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and parts of Australia and Washington State. Riesling pairs nicely with spicy foods, and poultry.
Pinot Gris is made from grapes that generally produce different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown and how they’re handled in the cellar. In the Alsace region of France, and in places like Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Gris typically makes rich wines marked by a bit of spice. The Italian style (Pinot Grigio) tends to be fresh, crisp and refreshing. This either style of this wine goes well with seafood and pasta dishes, vegetarian food and poultry.
Sauvignon Blanc is a fresh, crisp, aromatic wine with grapefruit and grassy flavours. This wine is the star of the Loire region of France. It also shines in the Bordeaux region, where it is often blended with Semillon. In the New World, New Zealand has emerged as a prime spot for Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is a food-friendly wine that goes well with many seafood, poultry and vegetable dishes.
Merlot is a soft, supple wine with nice fruit flavours of plums and blackberries and occasionally mint, chocolate and eucalyptus flavours and aromas. Typically, it is ready to drink earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, which sometimes needs a few years for its astringent tannins to mellow. Outside of Europe, New World Merlot shines in places like California, Chile and Washington State.
Cabernet Sauvignon is more assertive than Merlot, with more tannin and greater ageing potential. It can have flavours of blackberries, plums, black currants, and cassis. Aged in oak, Cabernet Sauvignon can take on flavours of vanilla, cedar, chocolate, and coffee. Beyond Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon does well in Napa, California, where it produces smooth, ripe wines. Washington State, Chile and Australia are also making excellent Cabernet. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are very nice with meat dishes like beef and lamb.
Pinot Noir, a notoriously difficult grape to grow, made its mark initially in Burgundy, France. The grape continues to deliver single-varietal wines that are among the best in the world. Pinot Noirs are delicate wines that taste of red fruits like cherries, raspberries and strawberries. With age, flavours and aromas become more complex, developing earthy notes like mushrooms and decaying leaves. Burgundy in particular is noted for developing these earthy flavours. In the New World, tasty Pinot Noir is being made in Oregon, New Zealand, and some of the cooler appellations of California. Pinot Noir is a versatile food wine, great with poultry, salmon, meat and vegetable dishes.
Syrah is at home in the Rhone region of France, where the grape makes spicy, rich, darkly delicious wines that increase in complexity as they age. Syrah also makes delicious wines in Australia, where it is marketed as Shiraz. Australian versions are typically big, bold and spicy with jammy fruit and aromas of leather and black fruit. Syrah also excels in Washington State, where it often displays an attractive acid balance, and in California, where the styles vary significantly. Syrah is a very versatile wine that pairs well with a wide variety of foods. It’s terrific with grilled meats.
Other Reds to Consider
Sangiovese is the wine grape that makes Chianti, a tremendous food wine with flavours and aromas of cherries and rose petals.
Nebbiolo is the grape variety that makes Barolo and Barbaresco, the noble (and pricey) red wines of the Piedmont region of Italy. With age, flavour notes of plums and cherries are enhanced by flavours of smoke, tar and roses.
Malbec is a star in Argentina, where it produces inky wines with an attractive smoke and leather quality. It also stands out in Cahors in southern France.
Tempranillo is a famous grape of Spain, where it is used in wines of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions.
Gamay makes the fresh and fruity, raspberry-flavoured wines of the Beaujolais region of Burgundy.
Zinfandel has found its home in California, where it produces big, fruity, often spicy red wines.
Cooking with Wine:
Wine’s complexity of flavours and aromas is one reason it works so well as an ingredient for cooking.
The Flavour Factors
Alcohol itself doesn’t add flavour to dishes so much as it helps release flavour molecules in foods and assists in dissolving fats, allowing ingredients to reveal their own unique flavours in ways that other liquids (like water or broth) or fats (like butter and olive oil) cannot.
When adding wine to a sauce, make sure you allow most of the alcohol to cook off; otherwise, the sauce may have a harsh, slightly boozy taste. How do you know when enough is enough? After adding the wine, cook the sauce uncovered until it reduces by about half. As the alcohol burns away, the flavour of the sauce will concentrate, becoming more delicious.
Tannins come from the grape’s skins, stems, and seeds. Thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, produce more tannic wines than thinner-skinned varietals like Pinot Noir. And red wines have more tannin than whites. This is because the juice of red grapes spends more time swimming around with their skins than white grapes whose juice is separated from the skins soon after pressing. The juice of white grapes just doesn’t hang out with its skins long enough to pick up tannins.
Tannins affect the texture of a wine. We often experience them in the mouth as a drying sensation, rather than as a specific taste. In a young red wine with lots of tannin, they can come across as astringent and pucker-inducing, but the tannins will mellow with age, and are, in fact, one of the compounds that allows red wines to age gracefully.
How do tannins affect our eating experience? Well, let’s take Cabernet Sauvignon. Beef dishes are a classic pairing partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. In large part, it’s because Cabernet Sauvignon is a highly tannic wine. The tannins in the wine become attracted to the proteins in the meat rather than the proteins in your saliva, which makes the wine seem less astringent, a softer experience in your mouth.
When you make a pan sauce with Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins become concentrated as the sauce reduces. If the sauce does not also contain enough protein and fat to handle those tannins, the end result could be a sauce that is a bit astringent for your liking. A vegetarian sauce, then, will probably work better with a less tannic red wine, like Pinot Noir, or a white wine.
Have you ever paired a tomato sauce with a red wine like Merlot? The acid in the tomatoes can burn right through the wine, making it seem flat. That’s because Merlot, which is typically on the low end in acid, can’t compete with the acid in the tomatoes. Chianti Classico, on the other hand, is a terrific choice for tomato-based pasta dishes: the sangiovese grape (the main grape in Chianti) has enough acid to stand up to the acid in the tomato sauce.
Of course, all wines have acid. So when cooking with wine, use non-reactive pans and skillets (like those made from stainless steel or enamelled cast iron) to avoid discolouration when the acid hits the pan.
Flavours and Aromas
When you’re making a dish that has one or two dominant flavours, it’s worth thinking about wines that share those basic taste characteristics. Pinot Noir, for example, particularly Pinot Noir from Burgundy, is known for having flavours and aromas of mushrooms; it might pair up nicely with a dish that features lots of fresh, sautéed mushrooms. A bright dish with a healthy splash of citrus might respond well to a wine with a nice, bright citrus flavour–like Sauvignon Blanc. A cream sauce with fish will likely match up well with a creamy, buttery Chardonnay.
Preserve Your Cooking Wine
Once you uncork a bottle of wine, and oxygen is introduced into the scene, the wine slowly begins to change. No matter how good or expensive the wine was to begin with, it will eventually turn to vinegar.
Bear that in mind when a recipe calls for wine. It’s easy to reach for that half-full bottle you’ve kept in the cupboard for a month. But before you pour it into the pan, take a moment to determine its condition. Cooking with this wine could make the dish taste sour.
One way to make the wine last a bit longer is to refrigerate it. The cold climate will slow the chemical changes that are conspiring to turn your wine to vinegar. Another method is to transfer the leftover wine into a smaller bottle. This helps because a smaller bottle will have less air in it. You can also buy fancy vacuum contraptions that suck the air out of the bottle. An even easier solution, of course, is to drink the wine before it goes bad!