Sweet Wine’s Bad Rap

Sweet Wine’s Bad Rap

I am about as classically French as they come. I was raised in Gascony. I was schooled by French master chefs Yan Jacquot and Claude Deligne. I even named my New York City seafood brasserie Millesime, or “vintage” in French, because we serve such classic dishes as pike quenelles and pot au feu.

To pride oneself on being a classically French chef is to be observant of tradition and techniques—each shaped and strictly taught over the course of hundreds of years. It means following the rules. I realize that what I’m about to tell you contradicts all of this, but sometimes you must overlook the rules. The result might just be something better.

One of the most popular sauces we serve at Millesime is the beurre blanc, which is made with ginger and Jurançon. I’ve had friends and fellow French chefs try it and some have looked at me confused. “How can you call this beurre blanc, Laurent?” they say. “There’s no ginger in beurre blanc, and besides, beurre blanc is made with a very dry wine. Jurançon is sweet.”

“But how does it taste?” I ask.

They usually say, “Very good.”

So who wins? Tradition or taste?

I grew up in a region where Sauternes—a sweet wine—is especially prevalent. I was also introduced to wine at a young age, so sweet, dry, red, white, rosé, it all doesn’t matter to me—I just love them.

Sweet wines have a bad reputation, particularly here in the U.S., because, in my opinion, years ago sweet wines weren’t made as well as they are today. People were initially introduced to these bad wines and were turned off completely to the idea of a sweet wine. Too many times these poor wines were the product of people turning away from age-old methods and adding sugar or other artificial ingredients during fermentation, and this unnaturalness is intolerable.

Adding to this poor perception about sweet or off-dry wines is the mistake people make of lumping all sweet wines together. I’ve been in wine stores where there is just one area labeled “Sweet Wines,” with little regard for type or nuance. It’s like people thinking Chardonnays all have the same taste and character. You can have a Chardonnay made in Burgundy that tastes completely different from one made in California or Argentina. It’s the same with sweet wines. Terroir, age and the variety all make a big difference.

Considering and using sweet wine in my cooking came with both time and travel. I was once in the Hungarian countryside and the local fishermen made me a carp goulash, red and heavy with paprika. I thought a red wine seemed most appropriate to be served with this, but they handed me a local, young Tokaji—a wine I usually thought of alongside dessert— and it was perfect. I was strictly taught that coq au vin is made with a dry red wine, but I was in Alsace and ate coq au vin made with a local Riesling that was so delicious. These are just a few examples of many over the years where my preconceived notions were conquered.

When I first moved to New York City in 1991, I was still very much an inside-the-box Gascon chef. I met a fellow French chef who had been here for a little while longer and he told me, “You’ve got to break free and explore in the kitchen.” I’ve been doing that ever since, and been quite successful because of it.

So the answer to the question, tradition or taste, is taste. Always, taste—while acknowledging that tradition and discipline is what gets you there in the first place.

Chef Laurent Manrique has helmed Michelin-starred kitchens in New York City and San Francisco. He is currently the chef/partner in San Francisco bistros Café de la Presse, Blanc et Rouge and Rouge et Blanc; and the seafood brasserie Millesime in New York City.

Try chef Manrique’s famous Beurre Blanc recipe:

Ginger Jurançon

2 tablespoons shallots, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely diced
½ cup Jurançon wine
¼ cup tarragon vinegar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 cups unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon white pepper

In a small heavy saucepan, combine shallots, ginger, wine and vinegar and simmer over medium-high heat until mixture is reduced by half, about 4-5 minutes. Stir in cream and reduce again by half. Remove from heat and let cool for 2 minutes. Add chilled butter cubes, one piece at a time, stirring gently with a wire whisk until incorporated. Season with white pepper and salt to taste.

Published on June 21, 2011