Badass Sommelier: Cooking with Wine – Blackberries in Chardonnay

A light and fanciful dessert for the summer. 

I think by this point it’s been established that I like to use a bottle of wine in the kitchen. It comes in handy, and it makes the actual cooking a little more pleasurable. And in the summer, I like to make one of my very favorite desserts.

It’s simple, it’s light and it’s delicious. You really only need a few things: blackberries (fresher the better), unflavored gelatin (powder is fine, leaves are better), sugar, a vanilla pod, and a bottle of wine.

Let’s Talk Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is one of the world’s noble grape varietals. It is the cornerstone of Burgundy, where it is used to make the finest white wines in the world. And California owes its considerable repute in no small part to that grape. Every major winegrowing region has planted Chardonnay, sometimes* to the detriment of other native varietals. There was a time when being able to make a good Chardonnay was seen as a rite of passage for developing wine regions, and for good reason.

Grapes are incredibly susceptible to changes in their environment, and Chardonnay is one of those grapes that is particularly sensitive. Cooler climates, like that found in Chablis, will yield grapes that are low in sugar and high in acidity, resulting in a wine that is crisp and mineral with subtle fruit flavors and a distinct almondy, hazelnutty thing going on. A warmer climate, like Sonoma, makes a wine with lots of tropical fruit notes (like pineapple, mango…you know, fruits that are hard to cut right) and a rich texture. The wine will (or should) be recognizable as Chardonnay, with telltale green apple and citrus flavors and a slight nuttiness in the background. Most importantly, Chardonnay has weight, and it is the wine’s body that makes it ideal for oak.

Chardonnay aged in new oak barrels will pick up hints of vanilla and herbs, and warm-weather Chardonnay (like many from California and Australia) will also undergo malolactic fermentation, wherein the fermenting yeast will transform the grape’s acids into alcohol instead of the grape’s sugars. This is what gives some (okay, most) domestic Chardonnays their telltale buttered-toast-and-theater-popcorn flavors.

Why That Matters.

Okay so here is where that business is important. Unlike most dishes in which wine is an ingredient, key or otherwise, this dish requires that the wine do the heavy lifting.

And blackberries are notoriously hard to pair with white wine.

What we want here is an oaky (we’re looking for that vanilla in particular, but the dill and smoke and caramel are good too) and buttery Chardonnay, with lots of fruit and unobtrusive acidity. Unoaked, high-acidity Chardonnays (like those found in Burgundy, for example) will have a hard time balancing the intense flavors and tartness of the berries. So what we’re looking for here is something like the Toasted Head from California, or Veramonte from Chile. Lindeman’s Bin 65 from Australia is cheap and readily available, and one I have had luck with in the past. It’s honest, but a bit dull. Kendall-Jackson and Cupcake, though ubiquitous, are fucking terrible and will make this dish (and everything else you put in your mouth, forever) taste like candied apples. So avoid unless you really love candied apples, in which case have at.

Get Cooking!

Okay so I’m a little drunk and I’m a little hungry and it’s hot out and I’m gonna want something sweet in like five hours. I should note that I happily curbed this recipe from Nigella Lawson. She originally called for raspberries, but I find the bite of the blackberries is better suited to a big, rich, oaky Chardonnay. Over the years this has become my go-to summer dessert.

So. You will need:

Like ten minutes of real, actual work. Several hours of lazing about. I strongly advise you to build a couple of Mint Juleps to while away the afternoon.

A bottle of good, cheap, oaky Chardonnay.

A whole bunch of blackberries, the fresher the better.

Unflavored gelatin. Sheets are best. Powder, also good.

A cup of sugar, or thereabouts.

A vanilla pod (this business is way more expensive than vanilla extract, and extract will do in a pinch, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it).

Some whipped cream for good measure.

Okay so here’s what you want to do. Put all of your blackberries into a large bowl, and pour the Chardonnay right on top of them. Let that marinate for about an hour.

Drain the wine into a pot or saucepan. Split the vanilla pod lengthwise, and put it in the wine. Heat until it’s nearly boiling, then set it aside for about ten minutes. Meanwhile, soak the gelatin in cold water for a few minutes, until it starts to become…you know, gelatin.

Take the vanilla pod out of the wine**, then reheat the wine and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. You can bring it to a boil if you want to burn off the alcohol, but I find this kills some of the flavor. Stir the wine slowly into your proto-gelatin mixture.

Now take your blackberries (thought I forgot about those, did you?) and spread them out into a few bowls. I find six dessert bowls usually does the trick. Then pour the wine-gelatin-thing over the blackberries. Put all of bowls into the fridge, and leave them alone for a few hours, overnight even.

Take them out a few minutes before serving, and top with a dollop of whipped cream.


*Often. That dumbass trend of uprooting native varietals in favor of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot has thankfully subsided.

**Here’s what I like to do with the vanilla pod. Put it on a napkin somewhere and set it aside. Once it’s dry, put the pod in your sugar bowl. And hey! Free vanilla sugar for your coffee.