Does top claret equal top-class red wine sauce, or is it just a good bottle spoiled? fiona beckett sets out to create the perfect reduction

Cooking With Wine: Will A 2nd Growth Do?

Does top claret equal top-class red wine sauce, or is it just a good bottle spoiled? Fiona Beckett sets out to create the perfect reduction

What about a piece on cooking with wine?’ suggested my editor over lunch. ‘See what difference the wine makes. We could use a bottle of first growth Bordeaux…’

I gulped. ‘Er, I don’t think many readers would do that.’ ‘Then we should try it for them,’ he said firmly. 

I tried to make a case for such extravagence. There are two of you. Great bottle. Great steak. Why open another, lesser bottle to make the sauce if the bottle you’ve got is going to make the best sauce you’ve ever tasted? After all, I had successfully used a glass of Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet in an upmarket version of chicken with white wine sauce which had so impressed my guests they’d talked about it for weeks afterwards. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘if you’re paying, why not?’

I mentioned the experiment to some chef pals, who were all uniformly sniffy about it – but then chefs are notoriously stingy. They also, as chefs do, disagreed on how the experiment should be conducted. Whether the wine should be added at the beginning or at the end, after stock. Reduced once or three times. To a third of its volume or practically nothing.

In the end, we showed a degree of reverence to the 1855 classification, and plumped for the slightly more modest Léoville Las Cases – a second growth, true, but still hardly the kind of wine you use for cooking unless you’re Bill Gates.

I decided to make a simple entrecote marchand du vin, a dish I’d normally run up with a day-old half bottle of whatever I’d been drinking the night before – a Côtes du Rhône Villages, perhaps, or a Faugères. The character of the wine is more likely to show through if it’s cooked fairly quickly than if it’s incorporated in a long, slow braise – although you’d always add an extra dash at the end.

I cooked the steak and set it aside to rest. I sweated off a couple of shallots, poured in a small glass of Las-Cases and reduced it by roughly two-thirds. I whisked in a bit of soft butter, seasoned it with salt and pepper and poured the steak juices back into the pan. Then I tasted it…

It was one of the worst sauces I’ve ever made. The reduction process completely de-natured the wine, accentuating the tannins and completely stripping the fruit. 

Chefs would have gaily poured in a ladleful of demi-glace. I tried again using beef stock to deglaze the pan. It was better – richer, fuller, more balanced – but the tannins were still obtrusive and the character of the wine masked by the stock.

‘Would it be any better with a cheaper Bordeaux?’ I wondered. I repeated the experiment with a bottle of 2005 Calvet, and without the stock. It was painfully thin and acidic. Maybe a Chilean Merlot? That was better. The sauce had an attractive roundness and sweetness, but it wouldn’t be a great match for a top wine.

What if I reduced the wine slowly rather than bubbling it fiercely? Back to the Léoville Las Cases. This time I left it barely simmering for half an hour in the pan. Some improvement, but the end result was still a touch bitter. The wine was just too much of a heavyweight.

The inescapable conclusion – and it’s always a bit of a letdown to have to confirm conventional wisdom – was that this was in every way the wrong kind of wine. Not just because it was extravagant (I wouldn’t have minded that if the result had been spectacular), but because it was totally unsuited to being heated and reduced. Too young, too tannic, and too concentrated. Not that it would have been any better a few years down the line. The ideal wine for a red wine sauce is robust, generous and fruity – unoaked or, if oaked, unobtrusively so. Southern French grapes, especially Grenache and Syrah, are perfect.

Conclusion number two. If you are going to use a higher quality wine it’s better not to reduce it too ferociously and to give it a bit longer to mellow. Added stock certainly creates a more balanced sauce though you lose some of the winey flavour. You can also adopt an old chef’s trick and add redcurrant jelly or tomato ketchup to add sweetness. Or use cornflour to thicken it, rather than over-reduce it.

Third conclusion: good white wines work better than top reds. Yes, there’s a danger of accentuating their acidity but that’s easier to deal with than rampant tannins. Gewurztraminer works very well.

Finally, even if the Léoville las Cases sauce had been transcendent I doubt it would have done the wine any favours.  After all, you don’t want your sauce to outshine your wine (take note, chefs who deliver plates to the table with ridiculously sticky reductions).

What The Chefs Say:

‘I’d challenge anyone to know which variety of wine you’ve used after the dish has cooked for three hours’

Alex Mackay, Guild of Food Writers Cookery Writer of the Year

‘Like any ingredient the quality of the wine is

important, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. We get great results with Rioja and inexpensive Rhône reds’

David Everitt-Mathias, Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

‘You should match the style

of wine to the dish. If you’re

cooking a recipe from south west France, for example, you need something

powerful, red and dark’

Henry Harris, Racine

Written by Fiona Beckett