Chicken (recipes & wine matches) everybody loves

Let’s talk chicken and wine matches. But why? The way I see it:
  • I learned long ago that ordering chicken in every restaurant gives you a pretty good idea of how good, bad, or detail oriented every restaurant's chef is. I know why, as a result, Blue Hill in New York, Zuni in San Francisco, and Le Pigeon in Portland are among my favorite restaurants in the country: they do chicken right.
  • Chicken loves bottled company, and picking a good one is not one of life’s most difficult tasks. The great thing about chicken, of course, is that there are 1,001 ways to cook it; and undoubtedly a 1,001 different wines to go with it. Well, probably more than that. But for someone with as catholic a taste as mine, this is heaven, plain and simple.
Chicken must be eaten with wine because that’s what elevates it no matter how it’s made. No one breathlessly writes home to say, "I found the perfect tea for har yee kai” (“beggar’s” chicken); or that "the classic Creole fried chicken beverage is a Big Gulp." But they do say that Bourgogne rouge is the natural match for coq au vin; and that a good barbera, or else Chianti, makes as much sense with cacciatore as coffee with a doughnut.

So what do you say? Let’s share some favorite chicken and wine matches. I’ll start with mine:

Chicken Cacciatore

The familial Italian chicken is cooked either with tomatoes, herbs and white wine, or braised with black olives and anchovy – or sometimes all of it at once. Tuscany’s Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, which are made from the red sangiovese grape, have the natural acidity and cherry tomato-like fruitiness to strike the perfect balance with this style of chicken. Of those from Chianti Classico, I look for Castello di Ama, Fonterutoli, Fontodi, La Massa, Emma and Badia a Colitbuono; and from Montalcino, some of the greatest heights are reached by La Magia, Barbi and Altesino. But still, fine sangiovese based reds don’t have to come from one of those chichi producers of Tuscany.

Other excellent, and often exceptionally well priced, sangiovese style wines from Italy include those from the regions of Carmignano (Capezzana makes a bunch of delicious ones), Sangiovese di Romagna (Zerbina’s a terrific value), Morellino di Scansano (Aia Vecchia and Fattoria le Pupille’s are full and velvety), Rosso di Montalcino (I like Uccelliera and Rosso di Casanova di Neri’s), and the illustrious, yet still reasonably priced Vino Nobile de Montepulciano (my favorites being Avignonesi and Poliziano).

Barring that, there are other red wine grapes – notably barbera and dolcetto – cultivated in both Italy and California (and bottled by the names of the grape in both places) that offer soft, zesty edged fruit qualities similar to sangiovese, making as effortless a match with cacciatore style chicken as the red wines of Tuscany.

Coq au Vin Blanc

Chicken simmered in red wine, bacon, pearl onions, mushrooms and garlic cloves is wonderful with red pinot noir from France, California, Oregon, or any place you can find soft, silky examples of this naturally earthy-spicy red wine. But for coq au "vin blanc" – substituting white wine for red in the cooking – I’ve found that the better match is a dry white wine with a modicum of stony earthiness, without the weighty fruitiness that is more typical of California’s popular chardonnays, without the lemony sharp edge of typical sauvignon (or fumé) blancs, and without the perfumey fruitiness of, say, riesling or moscato.

So for me, the classic chicken-in-white-wine matches come from France: the round, mineral and smoke nuanced whites of Burgundy’s Mâcon (think Verget’s Saint-Véran or Robert-Denogent’s Pouilly-Fuissé) and Côte de Beaune (like Marc Colin’s Saint-Aubin, or the Meursaults by Pierre Morey or Francois Jobard). Even stonier are the smoothly dry bottlings of pinot blanc and pinot d’Alsace of Alsace (those of Marcel Deiss, Charles Schleret, Kuentz-Bas and Ostertag being strongest in the terroir qualities a coq a vin blanc loves).

In California, not all chardonnays are distractingly fruity. In the cooler climates like the Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara, there are some crisp styles with mineral qualities being produced (especially those by Au Bon Climat, La Follette, Keller, Neyers, DuNah, Porter-Bass, and Dutton-Goldfield’s Rued Vineyard); and you’ll find similar, moderately scaled chardonnays in Oregon (by Argyle, Eola Hills, King Estate, and best of all, Ken Wright and Seven Springs) as well as in Washington State (those of Woodward Canyon, Amavi, Abeja, Januik and even Château Ste. Michelle are always among the best).

But who says the world of coq au vin blanc turns around chardonnay? The pinot blancs of California (those of Chalone, Au Bon Climat and J. Wilkes, for starters) as well as Oregon (WillaKenzie’s and Ken Wright’s are as good as it gets, although Foris makes a nifty little one in the south side of the state) fulfill the same culinary need when it calls for a white wine that’s not too heavy, not too light, not too tart, and not too soft or fruity.

Lemon or Ginger Chicken

The familiar Chinese style dishes – in sweet /sour lemon sauces, or steamed with ginger and garlic – call for more exotically perfumed white wines that combine both acidity and traces of residual sugar. But this does not mean, as often assumed, that the best choice is gewürztraminer – a lychee scented white wine that has a tendency towards low acid and slightly bitter qualities (as commonly found in the gewürztraminers of France’s Alsace, and many of the dryer styles of California). Heavy, bitter styles of gewürztraminer have a tendency to taste unbearably harsh with sweet/sour dishes, and the dishes sweeter and more sour than necessary.

The best white wine for strongly flavored Chinese styles of chicken is riesling; lush enough to merge seamlessly with gingery spices, and feathery fine, gentle and balanced enough to echo sweet/sour notes. The lightest yet most intensely scented and refined rieslings in the world come from Germany; particularly the kabinett quality styles from the regions of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (strictly personal favorites: Weins-Prüm, Mönchhof, Loosen, Milz, Selbach-Oster, Zilliken, von Hövel, and von Schubert), Rheingau (Weil, Künstler, and Kesseler), Rheinhessen (Gunderloch), and Pfalz (Burklin-Wolf, Pfeffingen, or von Bassermann-Jordan).

In Washington State, Chateau Ste. Michelle has been turning out fresh, balanced, lusciously fruited rieslings since the ‘70s, although Pacific Rim (sourcing in Washington’s Columbia Valley) and Oregon’s Chehalem are undoubtedly making the finest rieslings in the Northwest today. In the Southern Hemisphere, the rieslings by Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia and Villa Maria in New Zealand are wonderful, tropical-scented whites showing just hints of sweetness, balanced by enough zesty acidity to harmonize with sweet/salty/spicy/gingery Asian style chickens.


Chicken Etoufée

In North America, and around the world for that matter, the Cajun-Creole style of casserole chicken may very well reign supreme. Versions such as Paul Prudhomme's – given great density (but not overly thickened) by roux, the "holy trinity" of onions, bell peppers and celery, and a dozen or so other spices and seasonings – are both complex and mercilessly intense. For something so good, the only thing to drink with it is a great wine

Etoufée likes wines equal to it in depth, heft, and layers of spice. This would mean a good red wine, but not one with a dry, hard taste that would deaden the palate; and the wine that best fits this description is California’s zinfandel – especially the velvety, peppery-cinnamon-and-clove, berry jam-like scented zinfandels produced in Sonoma by the likes of Carol Shelton, Quivira and Ridge.

Of those from Napa Valley, zinfandel fanatics swear by Robert Biale and Turley Wine Cellars, although my current fave-raves are those of Tres Sabores and Frog’s Leap. Sourcing from other parts of the state, producers like Neyers, Rosenblum, Cosentino, St. Amant, Jesse’s Grove, Macchia, Michael-David (especially their Earthquake), Cedarville, Perry Creek, C.G. di Arie and Miraflores makes outstanding all-American styles – big, brash, unabashedly fruity – for this all-American style of chicken.


Chicken Paprikas

The late Roy Andries de Groot once proclaimed his recipe for Hungarian style of chicken – browned with goose fat, then braised with onions, garlic and, finally, a sauce pigmented by generous doses of the mildly spiced paprika chile before thickened in the end with sour cream – as one of the most glorious dishes in the world, and I can’t say I disagree (look for my favorite recipe at the end of this post).

For paprika laced chicken, de Groot’s classic choice was always a lovingly cellared, old French Bordeaux or California cabernet sauvignon – soft, yet rich enough to absorb the avalanche of sweet, spicy, succulent flavors in paprikas style chicken. The problem being, de Groot’s idea of “cellaring” was a vintage at least 20 or 25 years old. Most of us zip down to the nearest liquor or grocery store to pick up our wine to drink tonight, and we’re lucky if it’s more than three years old.

So in lieu of something cellared, I recommend a soft, luxuriously fruited, California grown red wine made from the merlot grape (Salexis, Selene, Swanson, Neyers and Peju’s are five that continue to stir my old passions for the grape); or else one of elegant yet dense, juicy “Bordeaux” style blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc from California (some new and old favorites: Robert Sinskey’s Marcien, Lang & Reed’s Right Bank, Murphy-Goode’s All In and Wild Card Clarets, Worthy’s Sophia’s Cuvée, Justin’s Justification and Isosceles, St. Supery’s Élu, and Babcock’s Fathom) or Washington (where Va Piano’s Bruno’s Blend, Sleight of Hand’s The Illusionist, and the sangiovese laced Manina Cali and Long Shadows Saggi are my current faves).


OUR FAVORITE CHICKEN RECIPES

My experience of lemon and ginger chicken dishes is deeply ingrained in the Chinese restaurant experiences of my younger days in the Hawaiian islands, and recipes for these are found all over the net. For the best chicken cacciatore, I strongly recommend Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook: and for classic chicken etoufée, I don’t see how anyone can go wrong with the recipe in Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.

For other classic wine matches, we’ve improvised own versions of older recipes over the years. one of our all-time favorites:


Rihana’s Coq au Vin Blanc

8 pieces chicken thighs (mostly) and legs (or one 5 lb. chicken, cut in serving pieces)
24-30 pearl onions
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
6 oz. bacon strips or slab, squared or cubed
8 oz. button mushrooms, quartered
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 bottle (750 ml.) white wine (inexpensive chardonnay will do)
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, quartered
2 medium carrots, quartered
3 cloves garlic, crushed
6-8 springs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups chicken stock or broth

Cut off root end of each pearl onion and make an “x” with knife in its place. Bring 2-3 cups water to boil and drop in the onions for 1 minute. Remove onions from pot, allow to cool, and peel (onions should slide right out of skin). Set aside.

Blanch bacon briefly in boiling water; drain, and dice or cube. Fry to render fat; remove meat and set aside, and save fat for frying.

Sprinkle chicken pieces on all sides with salt and ground pepper. Place chicken pieces, a few at a time, into a large (1-2 gallon) sealable plastic bag along with flour; shake to coat chicken completely. Remove chicken from bag, and fry in bacon fat, just until crust is crisp. Set chicken pieces aside.

In same pan, add pearl onions to fat, sprinkle with salt and pepper, sautéing until lightly brown (approximately 8-10 minutes). Remove onions from pan and set aside. Transfer chicken into a 7-8 quart enameled cast (like Le Creuset) or cast iron Dutch oven.

Add mushrooms to the same 12 inch sauté pan, adding 1 tbsp. butter if needed, and sauté until liquid is released (approximately 5 minutes). Store onions, mushrooms and bacon in airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Pour off remaining fat and deglaze pan with approximately 1 cup of wine. Pour this into Dutch oven along with chicken stock, quartered onion, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Add all of the remaining wine. Preheat oven to 325° F.

Place chicken in oven and cook for 2 to 2-1/2 hours, or until chicken is tender. Maintain a very gentle simmer and stir occasionally.

Once chicken is done, remove it to a heatproof container, cover, and place in oven to keep warm. Strain the sauce in a sieve and degrease (discard carrots, celery, thyme, garlic and bay leaf). Return the sauce to a pot, place over medium heat, and reduce by 1/3 (depending on how much liquid you began with, this should take 20-45 minutes).

When sauce has thickened, add pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon, and cook another 15 minutes or until heated through. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary; remove from heat, add the chicken and serve.

Serve from Dutch oven with either long grained white rice or lightly buttered egg noodles. (note: if sauce is not thick enough at the end of reducing, you may add a mixture of equal parts butter and flour kneaded together, starting with 1 tbsp. each; whisk this in the sauce for 4-5 minutes, and repeat if necessary).

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