Cooking with Grange

A few years ago, owing to boredom, I used a 1996 Penfolds Grange in cooking. There was 50mls of wine left after a work function, and this was added to my gravy. Sitting on the floor of the lounge room — occasional fifth bedroom — in a share-house with friends, we ate a roast lamb dinner, and it was delightful.

Cooking with Grange key ingredients.
The key gravy ingredients (Pondalowie shiraz 2008, Silk pinot noir 2008, Penfolds Grange 2006)

I told Gabriel Martin, chef, sommelier, Frenchman, and co-owner of Metropolis Eating House, this story recently. He didn’t appreciate it.

“It is because you are stupid!” Martin said with his accent. “Because it is in your head. You think, ‘I’m using this Grange, it must be good.’ I bet you $10,000 you can’t tell the difference.” And with that, the challenge was made.

We had been talking about cooking with wine. I have seen many restaurants use cheap cask wine in their cooking, which is something Martin does not do. “I always use quality wine,” he said.

So why not Grange? “Of course there is a bit of background of shiraz — but it is a joke.” He didn’t like my use of the iconic, $600+, Australian shiraz, I could tell. “You have cooked it! If I used a pinot noir I would have had the same result.”

My nostalgia of squalid decadence was crumbling. I told him I could add wines to gravy that he could taste, and I would be back for the $10,000 taste challenge (actual money not included). He told me that any flour used would smother the wine, and that he would be waiting.

The Grange gravy I remember held Barossa cassis, blackberry and blackcurrant characters. The flour used did not mask the wine or the garlic, rosemary and roast lamb stock. It was like the ’96 had concentrated to look like a 2004. That’s how I do, and want to, remember it.

Wishing this was not an illusion I went home and rang another expert for, hopefully, a different opinion to Martin’s.

“I’ve always maintained that if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” Luke Campbell, Vinified wine consultant.

While he didn’t agree with using Grange — nor do I as a rule of thumb — Campbell did advise that wine acids and alcohol benefit cooking. “Gravy, by its nature, usually has got a high fat content. So you need something with a fair amount of alcohol to break it down.”

He said that through cooking, some wine components will impart on the dish. A sweet wine will add sweetness, a tannic wine will add tannin. But how much alcohol do you want in your meal?

AGD one batch of red wine gravy in production
A red wine gravy in production

“It all depends on the length of time you cook,” Campbell continues. If a stew is left long enough most of the alcohol will evaporate away. “And you’re just left with the fruit flavours and some of the acids within that fruit.”

The trick is, while Gabriel Martin practices slow-cooking, my wine gravy is quick; the wine added a few minutes before serving. This should allow the wine to show though.

Buoyed, I produced a stock, acquired a bottle of shiraz and one of pinot noir, rummaged the internet for a recipe and opened a bag of corn flour. I looked at my ingredients, felt daunted, and took a breath.

For someone who did badly at school science, this was starting to look suspiciously like a bona fide experiment.

First, water and tinned gravy powder were used to establish a simmer time. One “tinned” gravy was then kept as a control, and a further five gravies were produced. Each of these gravies used 125ml of stock, with one tablespoon of corn flour and 40mls of wine added, as required, in the last two minutes.

The six gravies made were: the control, a gravy using shiraz, a flourless shiraz gravy, a pinot noir gravy, a flourless pinot noir gravy, and a base gravy made of stock and flour alone.

It is worth noting that the wines were of uneven quality. The pinot noir was at the cheap end—$20 for a pinot noir considered cheap, and the shiraz was as close to Grange quality as I could afford—a good bottle at $25. A secret ingredient will be revealed later.

After much fretting and stopwatch watching, the gravies were placed on a tray, numbered, and then ferried to a taste test with Gabriel Martin and guests. I was confident, but nervous.

The wine gravies were immediately noticeable for their colour. The shirazes had a purple tinge, while the pinot noir duo held an orangey edge. “And, you know,” commented Martin. “Gravy is a very visual thing.” It was agreed that the tin gravy, muddy-brown and gelatinous, looked the most appealing. But the real $10,000 test was about taste.

Gravy number one (the “tinned” gravy) was criticised as being too salty, while number four (pinot noir without flour) was labelled as tasting “like a seafood bisque”. Number five (pinot noir with flour), described as “disgusting!” and number six was equally undesirable.

I forgot to mention that I’m not much of a chef.

AGD tray of gravies
The tray of gravies

The intrigue came in the response to the third gravy (shiraz with flour). “Is it American oaked?” was the question raised, and it was. It included a portion of 2006 Penfolds Grange, acquired from a previous night’s work function.

No alcohol was noted among the tasters, and gravy number two (shiraz without flour) was considered the best tasting. Its shiraz content least hampered by flour, and clearly better than the pinot noirs. This meant the 10,000 fictitious dollars were mine!

Thankfully Martin was content that the cooking method, rather than taste buds, dictated the outcome.

Slow cooking can evaporate much of a wine’s fruit flavour, leaving colour and the effect of acids and alcohol as the benefit to its inclusion. But with quick-cook recipes most wine characters will remain, making it important to use a wine that you want to taste.

Would I cook with Grange again? Expense aside I might, I don’t put much stock in Grange — no pun intended.

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