How to choose a great cooking wine

How to choose a great cooking wine

November 17, 2017


When we say ‘cooking wine’ - we don’t mean a wine to sip whilst you cook. Although it must be said, that’s a very worthwhile endeavour in itself!


When a recipe calls for wine as an ingredient, it can be tricky to know which to use. Do you splash out (pun intended), in the hope that the better the wine, the better the flavours in the end result? Or does it literally not matter one tiny bit, and are you best reaching for the cleanskin…?


People often say that it’s best to use a wine that isn’t the cheapest of the cheap, but instead opt for something you would drink yourself. Although that might ring true for a few people who know their stuff, what happens if you’re not a wine buff at all? Or only like sweet wines when the recipe calls for dry? Or don’t particularly like red wine? Or any number of random problems which are likely to throw this rule of thumb out the window? It would also seem, by this common rule, that the more highly rated the wine, the more you’d be encouraged to use it in your kitchen… but we’ll hazard a guess that you’d probably not want to use Penfold’s Grange Hermitage in your Bolognese, at a rough value of $500 a bottle.


A good thing to remember is that when you cook wine, the characteristics change. The alcohol burns off with intense heat, usually reducing it and concentrating its more dominant flavours. By using a cheap wine, you could end up making an offensive sip worse by strengthening its unfavourable features in a dish. Using something super premium, by contrast though, is a bit of a waste - as the cooking process does intrinsically change the wine’s flavour, killing its nuances and disguising most, if not all, of its subtle notes.


To help out - as we know choosing wine for any purpose can cause many of us to fret - we’ve compiled a list of handy tips to refer to when cooking with wine.


  1. So, the first big rule of choosing a wine when cooking is to consider the sweetness: Use a sweet wine only if you want sweetness in the final dish, otherwise use a dry wine. Most recipes will specify whether the wine should be dry or not, so follow that guidance so you don’t end up with a dish that’s more sickly than rich.
  2. Use a wine of mid-range price - between $12-$18 - so you’re not splashing out on something that’s unduly fancy or has complicated, delicate flavours - as most of these will be destroyed or changed during the cooking process… but you’re also not purchasing the wine equivalent of balsamic.
  3. The best wine-food pairing for your resulting dish will likely be the wine you’ve used to create it - as it’ll have the same type of flavours. This is probably our favourite rule of thumb, as it’s so easy to remember - and means the leftovers are well-appreciated!
  4. Never use old, corked or spoiled wines. If you use a wine past its prime - one which has been open for more than 3 days at room temp, or 10 days in the fridge - you risk your dish tasting like vinegar or acetone (*shudder*).
  5. Consider how much wine you need, and when you need to add it to the dish. If you’re adding a splash to a beef dish in a slow cooker for three hours, the type of wine you use will matter far less than if you add a splash towards the end of the process for a ‘winier’ flavour, or if the recipe calls for a relatively large amount of it as the dish’s key flavour.
  6. Generally, the most versatile wines are crisp, dry, unoaked whites such as Pinot Grigio and medium-bodied but not overly tannic reds like Merlot. This can be used as a very general rule, but it’s worth reading your recipe closely with the other above points in mind.

As with most things when it comes to wine, we could get into complicated descriptions of flavours, and which wines to use with different meats, different cooking styles, yada yada - but the truth is, most of the time the differences in home cooking produce very similar results (providing you follow the basic points outlined).


Once you hit a winner with recipe/wine flavour combination, you’ll know - so it’s worth having a bit of an experiment in the kitchen with the general tips above used as guidance.


Cheers!




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