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cooking, Wine Blog, Wine Education

Cooking with Wine: Does it Matter?

We’ve all been told to cook only with wine you would drink. But what does that mean? Wine that you can swallow without wincing? And what about specific kinds of wine for a recipe. Does it matter if you use Pinot Noir or Cab? Chard or Sauv Blanc? When it comes to cooking with wine, are there more rules to keep in mind before submerging our meal in fermented grapes?

What follows are a few things to keep in mind the next time your recipe calls for the good stuff.

1) Do only cook with wine you would drink yourself.

Regardless if you buy the right kind of red or white, what matters more is that it is something you could see yourself finishing after you pour your cup or two in the skillet. There is no reason not to buy a decent quaffable wine what with all the choices in the world today. I have tried many $10 bottles that annihilate all the bulk, mass-produced plonk at $7 that people somehow feel more comfortable buying due to brand recognition (‘ahhh, yes, that label and price seems to be telling me this is ‘cheap’ wine, therefore fantastic for my demi-glace!’).

Plus, beware! Some of those jug wine have a lot of sugar added to them (this is called chapitalization) to hide the faults or beef up the alcohol. Reduce that in a sauce, and not only will you be able to smell those faults, you will also be adding some unnecessary and possibly detrimental sugar to your recipe. Dry, decent quaffable wines are out there. Just ask an experienced salesperson/wine expert.

2) Do not use ‘Cooking Wine’.

It seems logical (doesn’t it just add some acid the dish needs?). But it is not a good idea. Not only are you not really saving much money, if at all, but you are actually adding a ridiculous amount of salt and artificial flavorings to your dish.

If you are going to take the care to roll up your sleeves and make a meal that calls for wine and other lovely natural ingredients don’t bastardize it.

3) When it calls for White Wine…

If a recipe isn’t specific, the white that I reach for 9 times out of 10 is Italian—Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Falanghina, Gavi, Verdicchio, Vernaccia, you name it. Why? They tend to be lower in alcohol, light to medium in body, less intense on the nose and medium-plus to high in acidity. You don’t want aromatics, body or oak to overwhelm the flavors in a dish. Sauv Blanc can imbue too much citrusy grapefruit, Chardonnay can be oaky, Viognier a bouquet of flowers and lacking in acid, Chenin Blanc has a honeyed nose.

Here are some inexpensive picks (pretty consistent vintage to vintage, so not named):

-Ca del Sarto Pinot Grigio: $9.99

-Santi Apostali Pinot Grigio: $9.99

-Piccolo Gavi: $13.99

-Fattoria il Palagio Vernaccia: $11.99

-Santa Barbara Verdicchio: $11.99

-Anselmi Friulano: $11.99

4) When it calls for Red Wine…

Back in 2001, Cooks Illustrated took out the guesswork for me and tested a bunch of red wines on all the classic sauces. What they found, time and again, was that it pretty much boiled down to two kinds of reds for any given recipe: medium bodied, lesser to no oak, fruity red blends, or… Pinot Noir. Pinot was the only single varietal that was a success with consistency, in fact. They are often less oaked, fruity, medium bodied and high in acidity. They synergized with the other compounds in the dish as opposed to defeating them with their strength, perfume, oak, tannin or fruit. Merlot made sauces seem overcooked and jammy, Cab ‘bullied’ other flavors with its muscles and oak, Sangiovese was fine for red sauce but flattened every other sauce with a cardboard taste, and Zin also made the sauces too jammy and stewed.

So how to choose between Pinot and a red blend? Use your instinct. If a lighter, earthier dish, go Pinot or a light Cotes du Rhone—especially if it incorporates herbs, mushrooms and spice. If a heavier, heftier sauce/dish, go with a heartier, fruitier red blend—particularly one from California or Washington.

Here are some great, inexpensive standbys:


-E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone-$13.99

-Domaine des Rozets Cotes du Tricastin: $9.99

-Apaltagua Pinot Noir: $10.99

-Pinot Project Pinot Noir: $13.99


-Parducci Sustainable Red: $11.99

-Laurel Glen Reds: $11.99

-Ass Kisser GSM: $10.99

-Pedroncelli Friends Red: $11.99

5) Never, EVER cook with flawed wine. It only gets worse…

Perhaps you’ve been there. You open a wine. Perhaps it is corked, tainted, whatever…something’s not quite right. You shrug your shoulders and decide you won’t waste it. You put the cork back in and throw it in the fridge for cooking wine. The thing is, when you reduce a wine, those flaws only exacerbate. Just take it back to the store and get credit. Flaws usually affect one bottle, not a whole case. You just had bad luck. No need to chuck it…and certainly no need to reuse.

6) When cooking a regional dish, consider a regional wine to cook and consume with…

Yes, I said blends and Pinot are just about the best no brainer ways to cook with wine, but so is considering the source of the meal. If you are making a hearty red sauce, think Italian. If going for a rustic, Provencal dish, try a red blend from Southern France (there are a million). If an All-American steak with potatoes, consider a reduction sauce to pour over it using a Zinfandel—Jammy flavors actually compliment a red, juicy steak.

7) The higher the price tag, the better the sauce.

According to Cooks Illustrated, this is true. But… it’s not a huge difference. The consensus is that you should buy a decent $10-12ish bottle of wine. Increments of $10 thereafter are noticeable in a taste test, but marginally significant overall.

9) Port.  Ruby or Tawny?

If a recipe does not specify which to use, again use your instincts. If it is a richer, deeper sauce to compliment nuttier flavors, go Tawny. If trying to compliment a berry reduction, go Ruby.

I mean, for the most part, Ruby port is a little more versatile when cooking, as it doesn’t tend to see much oak and therefore puts forth fruitier flavors, much like a red wine. So unless it calls for Tawny, or you just feel intuitively that Tawny would be a better choice (for example, charred sirloin with fig and tawny reduction), maybe safer to go Ruby.

8) Slow and low…

Finally, you probably know this already, but don’t crank up the heat to high when making a reduction. You want the flavors to intensify and develop. If you want to speed it up, don’t increase the temperature, rather, make the sauce in a larger skillet, so the added surface area allows for faster evaporation whilst not compromising the flavor evolution.

Follow these simple rules, and you should make it through any recipe just fine! Email me with any other questions you might have, too, about this topic. I am happy to sleuth out some answers for particular recipes.


About mistralwine1982

Originally from Wisconsin, I moved to Colorado in 2005 in order to get closer to the mountains and rock climb. When it occurred to me that I would never make money with that hobby, I went to grad school. I received a masters in English and American Literature from New York University in May of 2009. I have since then opted not to pursue a PhD, for studying and writing about wine is far more fascinating (well, perhaps not moreso than Virginia Woolf, but still… for the long haul?). My favorite wines come from the old world, especially the Rhone, Burgundy, Rioja, Piedmont, and Tuscany. I am also smitten with roses, Italian hard-to-pronounce white varietals, and dessert wines from around the world. By day I run a wine shop. By nite, I sip and tell. It’s rough… but someone must do this.


3 thoughts on “Cooking with Wine: Does it Matter?

  1. Thanks for the tip for using low alcohol whites. Is there a reason that you want lower alcohol? Wouldn’t it cook off either way?

    Posted by Ben Donahower | 04/18/2011, 1:04 pm
    • Great question! I guess there are a couple reasons I tend towards lower alcohol whites (moreso than red–I don’t quite apply the same skepticism to red). Very few whites even have the capacity to get that high in alcohol (14% and above). These are often new world Chardonnays (new world=everything other than Europe generally speaking), new world blends, Viogniers and some from southern France (Marsanne and Roussane in addition to Viognier). All of which need a lot of sun to fully develop. As they do, their sugars and aromatics rise…and so does their alcohol. So maybe it’s less important for cooking that their alcohol is higher than the fact that this usually indicates fully pronounced aromatics and weight in the wine–a greater viscosity (think thick, drippy legs on the glass). Plus, it’s not unusual to see these heftier whites wear a little (to a lot) of oak as well. The intense aromatics and oak are the caution I have towards a lot of these wines when cooking. Because most whites don’t need to achieve such high amounts, I use it as an indication of its overall body and intensity. More alcohol=greater body and aromatic intensity…in my experience, typically.

      Also, keep in mind, it takes a long time for alcohol to ‘burn off’ so to speak. Even longer every percentage notch you go up, threatening to interrupt the sauce if it doesn’t evaporate considerably. A great site that generally maps out the type of preparation employed and hour(s) until full alcoholic evaporation is: http://www.ochef.com/165.htm. It may surprise you!

      Thanks so much for your question! Cheers…

      Posted by ahausman | 04/18/2011, 1:21 pm
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