From Portland Variety to The Good Son and Luma: Top Toronto Chefs Dish Up Wine Cooking Basics

As much as we’ve learned about sipping, sniffing and swirling wine, we know less about cooking with it. 

We wanted to discover more, so we went straight to the experts in the kitchen. 

Milton Nunes, Co-owner of King West’s new hot spot Portland Variety, Chef de Cuisine Michael Wilson of Oliver & Bonacini’s Luma restaurant and Top Chef Canada’s Chef Vittorio Colacitti of Queen West’s newly opened The Good Son offered a few words of wine-inspired wisdom… 

What’s the benefit of cooking with wine, anyway?
“Wine is an essential ingredient in some dishes because it contains acid, sugar and tannins,” says Nunes. “The sugar and tannins help add flavour while the acidity adds brightness and helps tenderize and add texture to proteins.”

Is there a general rule for using red vs. white? 
“Pair white wines with lighter items like fish, chicken and vegetables, and heavier red wines with red meats,” says Nunes. Of course, those are just the basics.

Does cooking with wine change seasonally?  
“A white wine in the summer complements the lightness in the food,” says Wilson. “And in the winter, a full-bodied red works well to complement rich and heavier winter menu options,” continues Wilson, who generally cooks more with wine in the winter. 

“I cook more with red in the winter because the acidity helps cut the richness of certain winter-appropriate dishes. It just makes sense,” says Vittorio. 

Why is wine so commonly used in sauces? 
“In sauces, wine is used to really build the flavour and bring out its depths,” says Wilson. “Red wine goes well with red sauces for red meat and both red and white wine can also make essential ingredients in pasta sauces.” He tells us that wine is also ideal for marinades.   

“I like to use wine in my tomato sauce and my BBQ sauce at home and at work,” says Chef Vittorio. “With the BBQ sauce, wine adds a level of body and makes it more savoury. I would typically use a cabernet sauvignon for that.”

Which wine works best with meat and poultry?
“Meat and poultry go well with a well-rounded Cabernet Sauvignon or a decent, well-rounded white – nothing too sharp,” says Wilson. A braised beef short rib with a red wine sauce and escargot is on his Luma menu right now. 

“I like to use wine to create steak sauce. The sauce will be made with a veal stock and I would typically add the same red wine that I planned to drink with the steak,” says Chef Vittorio. “Our ribeye steak sauce is made that way; with veal stock and red wine.”

What about seafood?
“I like to do a white wine butter sauce with salmon,” says Wilson, of Luma’s popular salmon dish.

At Portland Variety, some quick favourites also rely on wine. “We use white wines for our clams and in our shrimp Pil Pil,” says Nunes. “In both of these dishes, the white wine helps add a sharp bright flavour to the food. The clams are cooked in white wine for added brightness; the shrimp have a short white wine marinade to help with texture and cut the oil in the dish.” 

Chef Vittorio Colacitti turns to white wine for seafood as well. “A new menu dish that we will soon introduce is a red quinoa-crusted white fish with a white wine butter sauce, made with a sauvignon or a chardonnay,” he tells us.

When would you use ice wine?
Wilson turns to ice wine for foie gras. “Sweet ice wines work well in a seared foie gras and really cut through the fat of the foie gras,” he says.  

What about port wine?
“We use a port wine in a dessert to macerate berries,” says Nunes. “The sugar and tannins add additional flavour and umami to the berries.” Portland Variety’s summer berry and lemongrass granita uses port wine for flavour. 

What are your favourite ways to use wine while cooking? 
“My favourite use of wine for cooking is in a wild mushroom pasta, where I would use a dry white wine,” says Vittorio. “I sweat the onions, mushrooms and garlic together, then add the wine. The key is to cook the wine first until you can vaporize the alcohol so it diffuses. There should not be an alcohol taste at all.” 

“I like to cook a lot of braised meats that take hours on very low heat,” says Nunes when asked which wine he uses when cooking at home. “I like to use heavier wines with deeper tannins to help tenderize and add flavour to braised beef dishes.”

Any other tips on wine?  
Don’t use cheap or cooking wine – it won’t complement the flavours at all,” says Wilson. “If you don’t like the wine, you won’t like the way it makes your food taste.” 

“Experiment. Cook, cook and cook some more, and use wine to experiment each time by making slight adjustments until it becomes perfect,” says Nunes. 

For more wine-related (and non wine-related) wisdom, check out the Apothic Wines Discovery Hub, where you’ll always discover something notable. 

Images: Cindy La