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Nov 29, 2006
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Wine With. . . Coq au Vin

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


French cuisine gets accused sometimes of being too fancy or frilly, but no dish seems more French and more down to earth than coq au vin-chicken long-cooked in wine.  After all, a cockerel is one of France's national symbols, having replaced the aristocratic fleur-de-lis following the Revolution.  And wine, of course, is the country's passion. 

Though the origins of coq au vin seem murky, it has a long history as rural or peasant fare all throughout France.  Different wines for simmering the chicken are used in different regions-Riesling in Alsace, vin jaune in the Jura, Cahors in Quercy and so on, but in both restaurants and home kitchens the most popular version comes from Burgundy.  Browned pieces of chicken, diced bacon, earthy mushrooms, and sweet onions-all simmered for hours in wine (red toujours), until the meat becomes so tender that it falls off the bone.  Although it can be a delicious and wholesome family supper, it's also a great party dish, since you can prepare it well before the guests arrive. (It actually tastes better if served the day after you make it.) 

In Burgundy, serving any wine other than red Burgundy with coq au vin would be une catastrophe.  Here in America, however, we have many options.  So when the two of us made the dish the other week, we made sure to try a variety of wines.  Given its Burgundian heritage, we did include three made with Pinot Noir, but we also sampled nine non-Piniots-from Spain, Italy, Chile, other parts of France, and the USA.  The most important thing we learned was that not only did the Pinots fare quite well (two are among the five we're recommending), but virtually all the wines paired successfully with this dish.  The only exceptions were a very oaky Rioja and a quite powerful, tannic Syrah from Sicily, both of which seemed jarring when tasted with the food.  Everything else, though, seemed fine, leading us to conclude that this particular dish-rich and hearty but not all that heavy-is quite easy to match with wine.

The very best pairings in our sampling all included medium-weight red wines, none of which were especially tannic.  Sweet fruit flavors, as in the Oregon Pinot, proved appealing, as did earthy notes as in the Côtes de Rhône and spicy ones as in the California Zinfandel.  But what's important to emphasize is that, unlike the pairings with many other dishes we've tried for 'Wine With,' it was difficult to identify a top five from the twelve wines we sampled.  But then, that's probably not a surprise.  Coq au vin goes very well with all sorts of vin!  And at least here in America, they don't all have to be French.




Approx. Price



Barboursville Vineyards, (Virginia) Cabernet Franc 'Reserve' 2004








Thomas Jefferson, who loved all things French, and who dreamed of establishing a strong American wine industry, would be proud of this wine, which is produced quite near Monticello.  More Chinon than Bordelais in style, a touch of greenness lurks around its edges, whetting the palate and balancing the ripe red cherry flavors.  If you've never tasted a good wine from Virginia, this is definitely one to seek out.




Cristom, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir 'Mt. Jefferson Cuvée' 2004








The rich New World fruitiness of this toothsome Pinot is a gustatory magnet that attracts the various meaty, spicy, earthy flavors of the dish.  Pop one of those stew-infused pearl onions in your mouth, for example, then a sip of the wine--then wait for the explosion of sensory pleasure that's sure to follow!





Joseph Drouhin, Volnay (Burgundy, France) 2004 (Imported by Dreyfus Ashby)






Coq au Vin can be either a rustic or an elegant dish, depending in part on the wine served with it.  This lovely, delicate village Volnay, with its suggestion of Burgundian earthiness, carries the meal most definitely into the latter category.





Château Mont-Redon, Côtes du Rhône (France) 2004

(Imported by Kobrand Corporation)







From a stony vineyard across the river from Mont-Redon's estate in Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes this endlessly satisfying wine whose vibrant fruit, whiff of black pepper, and balanced tannins combine to form a seamless match with the coq au vin.



Shannon Ridge, Lake County (California) Zinfandel 2003





Although it's not an over-the-top Zin, this Northern California offering still has plenty of power and juicy ripe fruit flavors, along with a flash of spice.  It is poised at just the right place between muscle and grace to complement rather than wallop the wine-imbued chicken.