A Chef's Guide to Wine
As will become swiftly apparent while you read this, I am no wine expert. I know enough to know what I like, and that's about it. However, as a chef, both cooking with wine and pairing food with wine are an important part of my job.
Fortunately I've spent a fair bit of time working in a very wine-focussed restaurant with some expert colleagues to whom I can turn to for advice on all matters vino. It's given me a fundamental grounding in wine and food, and I've managed develop some basic principals that probably anyone can apply when cooking or eating out.
Cooking with wine
Cooking is an excellent way to use up wine that you’ve opened to drink, but haven’t finished (a rare occurrence in my home, but it happens occasionally)
Received wisdom is that when cooking you should use a good quality wine – ideally putting into the dish the wine you intend to drink with it. In reality, the cooking process completely alters the character of wine and changes its qualities and flavours. If it’s going in the pot choose something inexpensive but with strong flavours so it maintains a presence in the finished dish – and save the good stuff for yourself!
Almost everything you cook can be enhanced with a glug or two of wine – it adds acid notes, body and complexity, and is excellent for deglazing a pan – but remember to add it early to a hot pan to make sure all the alcohol is cooked off before serving or it will overwhelm the other elements. Remember that when you add wine you are adding sugar and acidity – so balance with a pinch of salt.
Pairing wine with food
Many books could and have been written on this arcane art, but if you’re buying a wine to pair with food there some simple guidelines I find very useful.
It helps to think of the flavours you would naturally pair with the main ingredients, and then to look for those in the description of the wine – for example, venison and other game pair well with dark fruits such as cherries and blackberries, and so a wine with those flavours in the tasting notes will likely make a good accompaniment.
Balance is also crucial. When seasoning a dish in the kitchen we always seek to balance the main elements of taste – so seek out an acidic wine to cut through very fatty foods such as pork belly, for example.
Finally, think about the overall character of the food – big flavours in a dish need a big wine to stand up to them. Light, delicate dishes need a less robust pairing.
Have fun and don’t be afraid to ask questions
Remember that the whole point of wine and food is to enjoy it! Don’t ever be shy to ask a waiter or sommelier for advice - It’s what they’re there for. Tell them what you like, and what your budget is, and they should be able to point you to something suitable.
And if you want to have a chardonnay with your steak – do it. The sort of people who will judge you for that aren’t the sort of people you should be having dinner with anyway.