HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Wine Columns

Wine Reviews

WineReviewOnline.com on Twitter

Critics Challenge

San Diego Challenge

Sommelier Challenge

Winemaker Challenge

Jun 11, 2008
Printable Version
Email this Article

Wine With Grilled Cornish Game Hens

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       

Inspiration sometimes strikes at unforeseen moments.  The culinary muse came calling for us recently when we were at the gym, flicking through various TV programs in an effort to relieve the boredom of the elliptical machine.  After skipping past the reality shows, the sports re-casts, and the millionth re-run of 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' we landed on America's Test Kitchen.  If you haven't seen this Public Television show, it's worth checking out for its basic-and sometimes inspiring-recipes and culinary techniques.  On this particular afternoon the host, Cook's Magazine editor Christopher Kimball, and his on-screen test cook Julia Collin Davison, were making grilled Cornish game hens with an Asian barbecue glaze.  It sounded so delicious that we stopped at the grocery store on the way home, picked up a couple of hens, and prepared them that night for dinner.  What we particularly liked about this recipe, in addition to its appealing glaze, was the notion of butterflying the birds, which results in the white and dark meats cooking evenly.


We weren't at all certain what kind of wine would be best with this dish-red, white, off-dry, dry?  We opened a collection of all of the above, tasted each with the hens--and then had some disagreements about the results!  One of us thought that white wines, overall, best accentuated the delicate flesh of the game hens, while the other favored reds for their affinity with the grilled char flavors and the tomato in the glaze.  We both, however, ranked the Pinot Noir in our lineup at the very top, and agreed that the lighter, tarter whites simply didn't have enough substance.  What all of this proves, we think, is that the dish is essentially adaptable to a generous range of wines, with only a couple of caveats: too thin and/or acidic, and the wine clashes with the sweetness of the glaze; too oaky and/or tannic, and it overwhelms the dish.


To go with the game hens, we made a luscious salad with fresh orange segments, shaved fennel, avocado, and black olives, seasoned with olive oil, a little garlic, and a squeeze of lemon.  It was a special supper.


Roasted Butterflied Cornish Game Hens (adapted from America's Test Kitchen)

Serves 2



1/2 cup table salt

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper



¼ cup ketchup

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons vinegar

2 teaspoons yellow mustard

1 garlic clove, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press


For the hens: In a large container, dissolve salt in about 2 quarts cold water.  Submerge hens in the brine, adding more water if necessary to cover them.  Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, combine sugar and spices in a small bowl.  Remove birds from brine, rinse them inside and out under cold running water, and pat dry with paper towels.  Using poultry shears, butterfly them (remove the backbone by cutting through the bones on either side of it; cut the breastbone by making a ¼ inch cut into the bone separating the breast halves; Lightly press on the ribs with your hands to flatten the hen).  


For the Glaze: Stir all ingredients together in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick and slightly reduced.

To cook the hens: place the birds, skin side down, over a hot grill.  Cover and cook about 15 minutes, or until skin is browned and shows grill marks.  Flip birds, cover them, and continue to grill for 10-15 minutes, or until thickest part of the thigh registers 160-165 degrees.  Brush the birds with half the glaze, flip them, and cook another 2-3 minutes.  Brush with remaining glaze, then flip and continue to grill 2-3 minutes more, or until the thickest part of the thigh registers 170-175 degrees.




Approx. Price



Bonny Doon Vineyard, California(The United States) 'Vin Gris de Cigare' 2007





A very satisfying rosé, with bright fruit and dried herb flavors, this wine married very nicely with the grilled birds.  It would be an especially good choice were you to serve this dish al fresco in mid-summer, when a red wine, no matter how tasty, might seem too heavy.




Joseph Faiveley, Mâcon-Villages (Burgundy, France) 2006

(Imported by Wilson-Daniels Ltd.)






The crisp acidity in this wine, combined with its succulent apple and pear-flavored fruit, made for an attractive pairing.  Because the wine tastes so lively, the overall impression was of a lighter, more genteel gastronomic experience than with any of the reds.




Ruffino, Chianti Classico (Tucany, Italy) 'Riserva Ducale Riserva' 2005

(Imported by Ruffino Import Co.)






We often reach for a Chianti or other Sangiovese-based Tuscan wine when serving a dish with tomatoes and spice, no matter whether the recipe is Italian, Asian, or Tex-Mex in origin.  This Chianti Classico did not disappoint with the grilled game hens.  Its cherry-tinged fruit and dusty undertones helped them taste deeper and earthier than they did otherwise.




Sanford, Sta. Rita Hills (California) Pinot Noir 2006





A young so fruit-forward Pinot, this wine may need a year or two of cellaring to show its best if tasted analytically.  Yet that obviously bright red berry and cherry character turned out to be what made it so appealing with this dish, as it accentuated the sweet but spicy quality of the glaze.  This match reminded us yet again that there can be a huge difference in opinion regarding the merits of a wine when tasted by itself as opposed to when drunk with food.




Salentein, Mendoza - Valle de Uco (Argentina) Merlot 2003

(Imported by the San Francisco Wine Exchange)







Though showing perhaps a tad too much oak, this mature Merlot displayed a soft, supple texture with quite gentle tannins.  It never overpowered the dish.