The Very Best Of The Dregs

Richard Ehrlich's Beverage Report: Let the aftermath of a party lead to some serious over-indulgence in the kitchen, with our guide to using up the leftovers
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The Independent Culture
People Who write about wine never have to worry about finding something to drink. That's one of the perks of the job. One of the non- perks, in addition to corkscrew-induced RSI and a mortal fear of colds, is that we end up with a lot of leftover bottles. The samples we're sent, once tasted, get re-corked with contents nearly intact. A few accompany the evening meal, the remainder sit there to annoy spouses and embarrass children.

Until they're disposed of. Some writers do this by giving the redundant bottles away. Robert Parker, according to Jancis Robinson, uses them to water a portion of his lawn (which is particularly lush and fertile, she reports). Some, when the backlog can't be cleared by productive means, have to pour the stuff down the sink.

I do all those things with my nearly-full bottles, but I also use every opportunity to cook with them. And I've gained a lot of experience in that activity since I started writing this column. In a few days, you too may find yourself with leftovers of your own. With that eventuality in mind, herewith a veteran's tips on liquidating the Wine Lake.

To begin with, let's distinguish between leftovers and serious leftovers. Leftovers are scraps, the odd inch left in a bottle. It is not insane to pour these away, as their uses are limited and their ability to crowd a fridge nearly endless. Serious leftovers are more likely to ensue from a drinks party.

The first method of disposal is just to drink the stuff. Transfer anything over a glassful to a small, clean, completely odourless glass jar and refrigerate for up to two days. It won't be at its best, but what the hell.

Smaller scraps, although pesky, are not unusable. If you'll be cooking in the next few days, use the glass jar. If you won't be needing them soon, pour the contents into an ice cube tray and freeze down before transferring to a clean plastic bag. NB: the wine won't freeze solid because of the alcohol.

If the leftovers are sparkling wine or Champagne, do not despair. My annual Champagne-tasting always leaves bottles unfinished, and my wife and I drink them for days. Amazingly, they have a good dose of fizz even after a fortnight. If there isn't enough to drink, use the leftovers in a Champagne sauce.

Serious leftovers are the biggest nuisance but also, for serious cooks, the greatest pleasure: they give you licence to overkill. Half a bottle in the Christmas gravy - why not? Or make a really extravagant coq au vin or boeuf en daube. Or experiment with sauce-making. Off-dry wines can also be used in this way, though you may want to balance their residual sugar with lemon, lime or vinegar. Poultry cooked with Riesling and finished with lemon is profoundly delicious. Sherry is even better. Port and Madeira are the perfect wines for cooking and saucing any form of feathered game. Dessert wines can be used for poaching pears or in a sauce for baked ham. The list goes on.

If the quantities are truly prodigious and immediate use is out of the question, then empty remaining wine into a big and spotlessly clean stainless steel pan: Bourgeuil, Rioja, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, they can all go in together. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook the wine down to around a quarter of its original volume. NB again: contrary to popular belief, cooking does not evaporate all the alcohol in wine. Cool, pour into ice cube trays, freeze, transfer to bags. Even these cubes will remain slightly slushy.

The result is something I call wine essence. With a freezer-life measured in months, it packs a hefty wallop of flavour because so much of the water has evaporated. And it can be used in any dish where wine would be called for, with the advantage that you don't have to cook it down. Braises, pan-fried chops or steaks, gravies, sauces - a single cube can turn an ordinary dish into a luxury.

The best use of all for leftover wine, red by preference though white will do, is the recipe for Confiture d'Echalottes au Cassis et au Vin Rouge in Nico Ladenis's My Gastronomy (Macmillan, pounds 12.99). Ladenis uses his confiture in various sauces. I use the stuff on its own as a garnish for just about anything - fish, meat, poultry, a baked potato. It is unbelievably simple to make, especially in my slovenly adaptation of Mr Ladenis's precise instructions.

Peel, trim, and finely chop some shallots. Put them in a saucepan with wine to cover by a couple of inches, and add a good splash of creme de cassis; Ladenis uses a cassis/wine ratio of 1:3, I use less cassis. Cook slowly, over a low heat, till the liquid has evaporated and the shallots are very soft. I promise it will be delicious, and no one will guess it was made with leftovers.

And finally, a last-minute Christmas buying tip. At William Morrison supermarkets, a pounds 10 note will secure two bottles of an attractively light Pinot Noir from Oregon: Willamette Valley Vineyards Lot Twenty-Eight 1996. Nice black-cherry fruit and soft tannins. The same tenner would also put your name on two bottles of a very drinkable Sancerre 1996 from Andre Vatan. Both wines normally sell for pounds 7.49, so this is a pretty generous 33 per cent discount. Reasons to be cheerful at this season of good cheer. Corkscrews to the ready! Happy Christmas.