Wine has a long, rich history as a cooking liquid. One of the early “cookbooks,” compiled in the first century, “De re Coquinaria” (“On Cooking”), included dozens of recipes that used wine. Since the beginning of recorded history, wine has been considered one of the essential ingredients in cooking. The ancient Greeks used wine and there are numerous references to its use in their meal preparation. When the Romans came along, they spread the practice of cooking with wine throughout Europe and developed special varietals, such as Marsala. The Romans also prepared a concentrate of grape must (unfermented grape juice) called defrutum, which was kept around the hearth and used both to color and sweeten foods. In the East, centuries of Japanese and Chinese cooks have made wine from fruits or rice and used these liquids in cooking.
Italians take wine very seriously and, just as they eat regionally, Italians drink regionally. Go to Tuscany where you will find Chianti, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Brunello di Montalcino. Head to Abruzzo and you will find Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or Trebbiano d’Abruzzo on the table. The characteristics of a given wine are reflective of the culture in which it is made. Each of Italy’s 20 wine-producing regions proudly claim their own sub-cultures and cuisines, leading to many variations of wine. Piedmont and Tuscany are the Italian leaders in quality wines. Italy is respected as a wine-producing country and no other country can boast as many varieties. They use their 350+ varieties of domestic grapes, along with international varieties to produce wines in a class of their own. Approximately one-fifth of the world’s wine comes directly from Italy’s vineyards and there are over one million throughout the entire country.
The Major Types of Italian Red Wines
Amarone is made from air-dried Corvina grapes and is produced in the northern Veneto region near Venice, using the “recioto” method. This technique involves picking the grapes that grow on the outside of a cluster and have the most exposure to the sun. The result is a full-bodied wine in a style more common to warm growing areas. Amarones are aged for five years or more before bottling. Some, but not all, are aged in oak barrels. Amarone (the name means big, bitter one) has a powerful, concentrated, almost Port-like texture with hints of mocha. Amarone is ideal with roasted beef or pork and also with cheese.
Barolo is a powerful and full-bodied wine with a complex mixture of tastes and textures – wild strawberry, tobacco, chocolate and vanilla. Barolo gets better with age and is frequently referred to as “the king of wines”. Barolo requires many years (three years minimum by law) of aging to soften it and it is improved by decanting. Barolo is made in the Langhe Hills region of Piedmont, entirely of Nebbiolo grapes. Nebbiolo is a difficult grape to grow well. It thrives in the region’s clay, limestone and sandy soil, preferring to be planted on sunny, south-facing hillsides. Barolo is a perfect accompaniment to meat, rich pastas and creamy risottos.
Chianti has come a long way from its image of wicker-wrapped bottles with candle drippings alongside a plate of spaghetti. Today’s Chiantis are produced in Tuscany, in central Italy near Florence and Chianti has a government-controlled wine designation. That means all of the wine called Chianti has to be made within the Chianti area. Chianti is produced from primarily Sangiovese grapes, sometimes combined with Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. It has high acidity with hints of plum and wild cherry. Chianti and any tomato-based sauce are a classic wine and food pairing, but Chianti also goes well with steak or other grilled meat.
Barbaresco is also produced from Nebbiolo grapes, but tends to be a more softer wine than Barolo. There are just three, small growing regions for Barbaresco compared to Barolo’s eleven regions, so there is less Barbaresco available each year. Barbaresco, too, requires aging – a minimum of two years and up to twenty years – to meet its full potential. It also pairs well with red meat and the rich food of Piedmont.
Bardolino is a light, fruit-filled wine made in the Veneto region of Italy. Named after the town of Bardolino on Lake Garda, this wine has faint cherry flavors with a hint of spiciness. Like Amarone, Bardolino is crafted, primarily from Corvina grapes. Sometimes made into a dry, rose or sparkling wine called “chiaretto,” Bardolino is best served chilled and goes nicely with fish, seafood, light meat entrees, pasta and pizza.
Montalcino is Tuscany’s second most famous wine zone, after Chianti. Montalcino is a small, medieval town just outside of Siena. The wine district there is a warm, sunny, hilly area with few extremes in temperature. The cool evenings insure high acidity. Brunello di Montalcino is created entirely from Sangiovese grapes. By Italian wine law, Brunello must be aged longer than any other wine – a minimum of four years. Brunello is subtle with overtones of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate and sweet vanilla. Drink it with the hearty dishes of Tuscany.
Cooking with Wine
Using wine in cooking is so natural, it probably would have occurred anywhere grapes could be grown and turned into wine. Wine can accent, enhance and intensify the flavors and aromas of food. The ways of using wine in cooking are numerous: marinate, saute, poach, boil, braise, stew or deglaze. Some cooks use wine for stir-fries, steaming or blanching. A splash of it straight out of the bottle is an added flavor in vinaigrettes or sauces.
Cooks use wine instead of water because wine adds flavor. But just as the four vinegars made from cider, sherry, red wine or white wine differ from each other, so do wines differ in what they add to a recipe. “Wine adds acidity to sauces,” says Jeff Mosher, chef for the Robert Mondavi Winery. “Food that has a level of acidity goes better with wine than food that is flat.” A careful cook, however, needs to consider the cooking preparation when utilizing wine. For example, wine could concentrate and become too tart after boiling down a marinade into a sauce. So, likewise, would any sweetness in wine; too much can be cloying. “It’s best to use red wines that don’t have huge tannins,” says Mosher. “When reduced, they leave a bitter flavor. I usually cook with merlot or pinot noir … never all cabernet sauvignon. Avoid wines labeled “cooking wine.” Not only are such wines often oxidized, but they are also packed with salt.
Finally, it isn’t necessary, as the old adage has it, to cook with the same wine that you will serve. According to Mosher, the flavor compounds and nuances of a very fine wine simply don’t survive the heat of most cooking. For example, preparing boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin doesn’t require an expensive red Burgundy. For these dishes, any of well-made, balanced, medium- to full-bodied red wine will do.
Red Wine Bagna Cauda
- One 750-milliliter bottle Italian dry red wine, such as Nebbiolo
- 1/4 cup marinated anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
- 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 1/2 cups good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Assorted crudités, such as carrots, radishes, fennel and bell peppers, for serving
In a large saucepan, boil the wine over high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about 20 minutes. Let cool.
In a blender, combine the reduced wine with the anchovies, garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice and blend until smooth. With the machine running, add the olive oil in a thin stream. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the bagna cauda to a medium saucepan and rewarm over low heat. Pour into a serving bowl and serve with the crudités.
Red Wine Glazed Meatloaf
- 2 slices of sandwich bread, torn into pieces
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped sage
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/4 cup plain dry bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 pound lean ground pork
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tomato, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon molasses
- Chopped basil for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush a medium oval baking dish with oil.
In a large bowl, combine the bread pieces with the milk and mash to a paste. Add the egg, chopped parsley, sage, thyme, salt, black pepper and cayenne and stir until smooth. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and dry bread crumbs and stir until thoroughly combined.
In a medium skillet, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, 1 minute longer. Let cool, then transfer to the bowl with the bread mixture. Add the meat and knead in until evenly combined.
Transfer the meat loaf mixture to the prepared baking dish and pat it into a 4-by-12-inch oval loaf. Bake for about 50 minutes or until firm but not quite cooked through.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the red wine with the honey, chopped tomato and molasses and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring to dissolve the all the ingredients. Boil until the glaze is thick and syrupy, about 10-12 minutes.
Brush half of the glaze over the parially cooked meat loaf. Continue baking for about 20 minutes longer until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 150°F; brush once more with the remaining glaze. Let the meatloaf rest for 15 minutes, garnish with chopped basil, slice and serve.
Red Wine Risotto with Mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 pound fresh porcini or cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
- 5 cups chicken stock
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup arborio rice (6 ounces)
- 1/2 cup dry red wine, such as Amarone
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- One 2-ounce piece Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for shaving
- 2 teaspoons chopped mixed herbs, such as basil, chives, parsley, etc.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the mushrooms; season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over moderate heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring, until browned. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate.
In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a simmer; cover and keep warm over low heat.
In the skillet, heat the remaining olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice and cook for 2 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until almost evaporated.
Pour in 1 cup of the hot stock, or enough to cover the rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until the stock has been absorbed, about 5 minutes. Repeat, adding 1 cup of stock at a time and stirring until all of the stock has been absorbed.
The risotto is done when the rice is cooked al dente, about 25 minutes. Stir in the butter and mushrooms and heat until the butter is melted and the mushrooms are heated. Season with salt and pepper, if needed. Spoon the risotto into serving bowls and shred Parmigiano-Reggiano over the risotto, sprinkle with herbs and serve.
Chicken Parmesan with Red-Wine Pasta Sauce
- 4 ounces uncooked linguine
- 1/2 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Large pich of crushed red pepper
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 2 cups homemade or store bought pasta sauce
- 4 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
- Chopped Basil, optional
Sprinkle chicken breasts with 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and the salt. Combine bread crumbs and Italian seasoning in a shallow dish. Dip chicken in egg and dredge in breadcrumbs.
Heat oil in a large skillet with a cover over medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 3 minutes on each side. Remove chicken from pan; keep warm.
Add wine to the pan and remaining 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and red pepper, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Cook 1 minute. Add pasta sauce; cook 1 minute or until bubbly.
Combine the mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Arrange chicken over sauce; top each breast with a portion of the cheese and a spoonful of sauce.
Cover the pan, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes or until chicken is cooked and cheese has melted.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Serve chicken and sauce over pasta. Garnish with basil, if desired.
Chocolate-Red Wine Cake
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter or butter alternative, softened
- 1 3/4 cups sugar or the equivalent of a sugar alternative
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups Italian dry red wine
- Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 12-cup bundt pan.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar at medium-high speed until fluffy, 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until incorporated. Add the vanilla and beat for 2 minutes longer.
Working in two batches, alternately fold in the dry ingredients and the wine, just until incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack; let cool completely. Dust the cake with confectioner’s sugar and serve.
- The Deeper Meaning of Italian Wine: An Interview with Leonardo LoCascio (selectitaly.com)
- Amarone: From Novelty to Tradition in 55 Years (ubriaco.wordpress.com)
- Hello Barbaresco (chezsirene.wordpress.com)