A Wine Lover's Guide to Herbs

From rustic to bright, fresh herbs add pops of flavor and perfume to home cooking—and present exciting wine-pairing opportunities.


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Herbs appeal to many of our senses, adding a variety of flavors, complex aromas, textural accents and visual appeal to both savory and sweet dishes.

“Herbs [are] one of the most important elements in nearly any style of cuisine,” says Zachary Ladwig, chef de cuisine at The Inn at Dos Brisas in Washington, Texas, located about an hour’s drive west of Austin. The Inn’s expansive herb garden measures 75 feet by 75 feet.

“I think herbs have come full circle again and are now back in vogue…especially with foraging,” says Ladwig.

Whether discovered in the wild or at a local market, it’s easier than ever to incorporate familiar and exotic herbs into everyday meals. But with so many enticing options available, how does the home cook approach wine pairings?

“Pairing wines with herb-infused dishes is the same as choosing the herb for a specific dish,” says Collin Thornton, executive chef of Epic Restaurant at The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, which claims to have launched one of the first hotel rooftop herb gardens in the world in 1997.

“You have to trust your senses,” Thornton says. “Many herbs have the versatility to be used in almost any dish. It depends whether you choose to have the herbs as a dominant feature or simply provide another layer in the finished product.”

For Iron Chef Marc Forgione of American Cut in Atlantic City, an herbal “mop” of rosemary and thyme provides a punch of flavor to the steaks that make up the majority of his menu—an easy trick for diners to take home.

“The herb mop Forgione uses is a great complement to dry-aged steaks, further enhancing nutty and roasted flavors,” says Xavier Mariezcurrena, beverage director for LDV Hospitality’s Revel properties, including American Cut.

While pointing out that the classic pairing for steak is Cabernet Sauvignon, “as long as the wines have a nice tannic structure, you really can’t go wrong with a variety of wines and styles,” says Mariezcurrena.

For pairing with herb-brushed steaks, he looks to the “earthy and mineral subtleties” of the wines of Priorat and “qualities of crushed raspberries, violets, tea and toasted sage” found in Nebbiolo-based wines.

Matthew Lewis, wine director of Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar in Sacramento, divides herbs featured in Executive Chef Pajo Bruich’s dishes into two categories: rustic (sage, cumin, dill, thyme and rosemary) or bright (basil, lemongrass, cilantro and parsley) for greater ease in wine pairing.

“When pairing rustic herbal notes, I love reaching for a traditional example of Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley,” says Lewis. “At their best, these wines present wonderful, green, herbaceous aromas, as well as tobacco and tea leaf.”

German Rieslings, with their perfect balance of sweetness and acidity “can lift” bright herbal flavors and “make them soar,” says Lewis.

Pan-Seared Lamb Loin with Heirloom Beans and Herbs

Recipe courtesy Pajo Bruich, executive chef at Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar, Sacramento

½ cup dried goat’s eye beans (or substitute cranberry or other heirloom beans)
½ cinnamon stick
2 cloves
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 bay leaves
1 bunch rosemary
1½ bunches thyme, divided
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ onion, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
2 ounces bacon
½ cup carrots, diced into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup turnips, diced into ¼-inch pieces
1½ cups chicken stock
1 lamb loin, cleaned and denuded, approximately 1½–2 pounds
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
1 cup canola oil, plus more to cook
1 bunch Italian parsley, leaves only
½ bunch basil leaves
¼ bunch mint leaves
1 bunch tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon xanthan gum (available at most natural food stores)
Micro parsley, for garnish (optional)
Red-veined sorrel, for garnish (optional)

Clean the beans under cold water and soak in 2 cups of water overnight. The next day, toast the cinnamon stick, cloves, cumin seeds and mustard seeds, then create a sachet by making a small sack out of cheesecloth, and filling it with the spices, bay leaves, rosemary and 1 bunch of thyme. Tie it closed with butcher’s twine.

Sauté the garlic and onion in butter, then add the bacon, carrots and turnips. Add the chicken stock and drained beans to the mixture and simmer with the sachet until the vegetables are al dente. Season with salt to taste.

Preheat an oven to 450˚F.

Season the lamb loin with the pepper and 1 tablespoon of salt. In a cast-iron pan with a bit of canola oil, sear the lamb over high heat on all sides until nicely charred. Transfer the pan to the oven, and cook to an internal temperature of 130˚F for medium rare. Remove from the oven, transfer to a wire rack and cover, allowing it to rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing.

Blanch the parsley, ½ bunch of thyme, basil, mint and tarragon in salted boiling water for 30 seconds, before transferring the herbs immediately to an ice bath.

Drain the herbs, then purée them in a food processor with 1 cup of canola oil, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of water and xanthan gum. Season with salt to taste. Pass the pistou through a chinois, and place in a squeeze bottle.

In a sauté pan over high heat, add the beans and a little of their cooking liquid. Let the liquid reduce over the beans, glazing them. Season with salt, if desired.

Slice the lamb into 4 portions. Place a mound of the bean mixture on each plate, and top with a slice of lamb loin. Squeeze a few dots of the pistou around the plate. Garnish with fresh micro parsley and red-veined sorrel. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: “I don’t think that herbs present a challenge, [but] rather an opportunity to bring out some unique wines,” says Matthew Lewis, wine director at Enotria. He recommends Domaine de la Noblaie’s Les Chiens-Chiens from Chinon, France—produced from a single vineyard of Cabernet Franc and aged for 12 months in 3-year-old barrels—to pair with the lamb loin. “From limestone and flint terroir, it expresses earthiness, deep black fruits and spices,” he says.

Herbal Mop for Steaks

Recipe courtesy Marc Forgione, executive chef and owner at American Cut, Atlantic City

½ pound dry-aged beef fat
½ pound unsalted butter
1 head of garlic, sliced in half crosswise
14 sprigs thyme, divided
14 sprigs rosemary, divided
10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Render the beef fat in a saucepan. Add the butter, garlic, 10 sprigs of thyme, 10 sprigs of rosemary, peppercorns and bay leaf, and cook until brown and fragrant. Strain out the solids. Spoon the mop over any grilled steak, or tie together the remaining sprigs of rosemary and thyme and use them to brush the mop onto the steak. Serves 4–6.

Wine Pairing: Xavier Mariezcurrena, beverage director for LDV Hospitality’s Revel properties, including American Cut, says that the classic American wine pairing for steak is Cabernet Sauvignon. “One of my absolute favorites is Quill Ink Grade from Howell Mountain in Napa,” he says. “While it may not be implied in the name, this wine is restrained, elegant and beautifully balanced compared to Napa standards. Flavors of wild black cherries, bitter chocolate, savory minerals, thyme and eucalyptus are amazing complements to the herbtinged steak.”

Warm Pumpkin Velouté with Mother of Thyme and Hummingbird Sage

Recipe courtesy Zachary Ladwig, chef de cuisine at The Inn at Dos Brisas, Washington, Texas

1 Rouge Vif D’Etampes pumpkin (or substitute sugar pumpkin)
4 stalks hummingbird sage, divided (or substitute regular sage)
2 ounces mother of thyme, divided (or substitute regular thyme)
1 head of garlic, divided and chopped
2 ounces 25-year-old Sherry vinegar
4 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 quart light chicken stock
4 ounces extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle
1 tablespoon vadouvan (or substitute French curry blend, available at Whole Foods)
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
4 ounces fresh Oregon currants (or substitute dried currants)
1 (375-ml) bottle of Pedro Ximénez Sherry
Yuzu juice, to drizzle
½ orange, juiced
4 ounces crescenza (or substitute goat cheese)

Preheat an oven to 300˚F.

Quarter the pumpkin and remove the seeds. Cut the flowers off the hummingbird sage and thyme. Reserve the seeds and flowers for garnish. Season the pumpkin with 2 stalks of sage, 1 ounce of mother of thyme and ½ head of garlic.

In a small saucepot over medium-high heat, combine the Sherry vinegar with the brown sugar, butter and the remaining garlic, sage and thyme, then reduce by ¾. Sprinkle the pumpkin with salt and pepper, and brush the herbed vinegar reduction all over the inner cavity of the pumpkin. Roast the pumpkin in the oven until tender and dark brown, about 1 hour. Once cool enough to handle, scoop small chunks from the caramelized areas and reserve for plating.

To create the velouté, scrape the remaining roasted pumpkin and place in a high-speed blender along with the chicken stock, salt and pepper, and purée until smooth. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil to finish. Pass through a fine mesh strainer and reserve for the final plate.

Lightly toast the vadouvan in a small pan until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add the pumpkin seeds and grapeseed oil. Allow the vadouvan and oil to coat the seeds evenly. After the seeds are evenly coated and toasted, about 4 minutes, drain onto a paper towel and reserve.

Add the currants and the Sherry to a clean saucepan, and cook over medium heat for 7 minutes, then remove the currants (reserving for garnish), and continue to reduce the Sherry until it’s syrupy in consistency.

On each plate, place two chunks of the pumpkin and drizzle lightly with the yuzu juice, orange juice and olive oil. Place one small pile of the currants next to each piece of pumpkin and dress with a drizzle of Sherry reduction. Drop a dollop of crescenza in the center of the pumpkin and scatter the seeds, thyme flowers and two pieces of hummingbird sage. Pour the velouté around the pumpkin. Serves 6.

Wine Pairing: To heighten the warm herbal notes of the velouté, sommelier Joel Tennyson at The Inn at Dos Brisas looks to a Pinot Blanc like Ken Wright’s Willamette Valley Pinot Blanc. “The crisp apple and subtle floral aromas with a hint of mineral of Pinot Blanc pairs nicely with the earth tones of pumpkin and sage in this dish,” Tennyson says.

Lavender Churros

Recipe courtesy Blake Faure and Jon Ramsay, co-executive chefs at the Golden Pheasant Inn, Erwinna, Pennsylvania

Vegetable oil, for frying
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 tablespoons dried lavender
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup (⅔ stick) butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
⅓ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat an oven to 375˚F.

Pour 1½–2 inches worth of vegetable oil in a 10–12-inch oven-safe pan, and place it in the oven. In a dish, mix the sugar, cinnamon and lavender, and set aside.

Pour 1 cup of water into a 3-quart saucepan, add the brown sugar, salt and butter, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, remove from the heat and add flour. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs and vanilla extract, then add to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Fill a large, star-tipped piping bag with the mixture.

Pipe 4-inch long churros into the hot oil. Once crispy and golden in color, remove and set aside on a paper towel to soak up excess oil. Roll the churros into the sugar-cinnamon-lavender mixture, and serve immediately. Serves 6.

Wine Pairing: “We selected the Château de Rayne Vigneau [Sauternes] to pair with the churros for its subtle honey flavor,” says Faure. “It nicely complements the lavender and cinnamon of the churros—softly sweet without being too overpowering.”

Peach Crisp with Basil Ice Cream

Recipe courtesy Ian Schnoebelen, chef at Iris, New Orleans

10 ripe peaches
2 cups sugar, plus 6 tablespoons, divided
⅛ cup corn starch
6 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons oats
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
2 ounces cold butter, diced
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 egg yolks
½ cup basil leaves
¼ cup simple syrup

Preheat an oven to 400˚F.

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. In a large bowl, prepare an ice bath. Score an “X” on the stemless side of each peach. In batches, place the peaches in the boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove the peaches and plunge into the ice bath. Peel the peaches, remove the pits and slice each peach into eighths. Place the peach slices into a shallow pot with 1½ cups of sugar, cooking slowly until simmering.

In a small bowl, combine the corn starch with enough water to form a paste. Stir into the peach mixture, and let simmer for about 10 minutes, until thickened.

Combine the flour, 6 tablespoons of sugar, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter in a stand mixer equipped with paddle attachment. Start on low and turn up to medium, until mixture forms small beads.

Heat the milk and cream until almost boiling. Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining ½ cup of sugar in a bowl. Add hot milk mixture slowly while whisking. Cool in ice bath.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare an ice bath. Add the basil leaves to the boiling water, then immediately remove and plunge into the ice bath. Remove the basil from the ice water and squeeze out excess moisture. Place the basil into a blender with the simple syrup, and blend on high for 1 minute. Add to the milk-egg mixture, then spin in an ice cream machine, according to directions, until reaching a soft-serve consistency. If firmer ice cream is desired, place it in a freezer for 15 minutes.

Spoon the peach mixture into shallow baking dishes. Place ½-inch layer of oat-crumble mixture on top. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until top is brown. Scoop the basil ice cream on top of the warm peach crisp to serve. Serves 4–6.

Wine Pairing: “Herb infusions add character and intrigue to desserts,” says Schnoebelen. He recommends pairing a glass of Moscato d’Asti with this dessert. This wine is sweet enough to stand up to the ice cream, but since it’s lighter than many other dessert wines, it won’t overpower the refreshing peach and basil flavors.


Common Herbs, Uncommonly Good Pairings

Joel Tennyson, wine director of The Inn at Dos Brisas, offers these tips for pairing wine with herbs found in the restaurant’s garden—and in your local market.

Sage: At The Inn, hummingbird sage is used in savory meat dishes like roasted leg of lamb. Sage tends to “play nicely with Syrah,” says Tennyson, who opts for wines from the Northern Rhône—particularly Saint-Joseph—or California’s Sierra Foothills that “show black plum and cherry notes, with full aromas of dried herbs and earth.”

Lemon verbena: This invigorating herb is a favorite with sea bass and other fish dishes, and adds a subtle lemon flavor to poultry and salads. To complement it, Tennyson recommends Pinot Grigio from Italy’s Alto Adige or Friuli Grave regions, “with its crisp acidity and grassy nose, [it’s also] rich and opulent on the palate.”

Garlic chives: With their faint aroma of garlic, this variety of chive “grows wild here on the ranch and plays a role with our roast chicken with chanterelles [dish],” says Tennyson. For ideal wine pairings, he looks to a premier cru Chablis, like Fourchaume, or a rich California Chardonnay, like the one from ZD Wines in Napa.

Thyme: One of the most common cooking herbs with many varieties, mother of thyme is used as a component in a compound butter to finish the grilled rib-eye steaks at The Inn. For pairing wine with thyme, Tennyson looks to Riojas that show “lots of dried fruit, a spicy black-pepper nose and soft tannins.”

Thai basil: Although there are more than 100 cultivars of basil, Thai basil tends to remain aromatic whether fresh or cooked. For a dish like Thai basil and melon salad, Tennyson favors Sauvignon Blanc, suggesting crisp and fresh wines from the Russian River Valley in California or Sancerre in France,“adding a hint of mineral to [the] finish.”

Curry leaf: Available in many Asian markets, curry leaves are perfect for meats. “We use this aromatic herb to flavor cabrito [goat] and lamb while roasting,” says Tennyson. “I pair these with wines from the Southern Rhône,” particularly Grenache, with its “ripe and rich berry flavors with hints of earth and sweet spices.”

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