Chambertin for Coq au Vin?

A chef friend we work with wanted a case of Burgundy for a stew he was making. I pointed out that a case of Cotes du Rhone would be a lot cheaper and, after hours of cooking, pretty close in flavor.

But he insisted on Burgundy, “I’m following a 19th century recipe that calls for a case of Chambertin!”

Nowadays, of course, a case of Chambertin costs well over $3,000. That would be a pricey chicken dish. Besides, supplies are so limited you would need to go to several sources to cobble together a 12-pack. It’s probably been a very long time since that particular recipe was followed!

Amusing, yes. But it also raises an important historical point that surprisingly few people are aware of, including many industry professionals and, apparently, my chef friend: Burgundy was the high alcohol wine of the 19th century.

Chef Careme liked to use Burgundy not for its elegance or perfume, but because it was stronger than other wine. And yes, it helped if it was Grand Cru wine like Chambertin, as it was generally only in the Grand Cru sites that grapes ripened adequately to produce strong wine.

Today, of course, we think of other French regions as producing bigger wines, such as the Rhone, the Languedoc and even Bordeaux. And we are right. Things have changed since the 19th century.

In fact, things have changed from as recently as 1992. One study found that back then Burgundy had the highest average alcohol level in France, at 12.9%. That’s ahead of the Rhone, at 12.7% and the Languedoc at 12.0%. Since then, every region in France has seen alcohol levels increase…except for Burgundy, where they’ve actually declined!

Now, it’s true that even in Carême’s time there were warm and sunny regions, particularly in the Languedoc, where it was probably not that hard to ripen grapes. Surely those were good sources for Coq au Vin wine?

Well, Carême couldn’t just run down to the local Carrefour to buy a 12-pack of La Bicyclette or what have you. Sure, he could probably get some southern wine, but it wasn’t nearly as plentiful back then before super markets brought oceans of wine from the south on shiny new trains. And in any case, Carême’s clients had plenty money and he had no reason to cut corners in his budget!

But you might. So by all means, get some Burgundy. It tastes delicious with Coq au Vin. But put it in a glass! For the pot, just use something like this Cotes du Rhone.

Leave a Reply