Cooking with Wine: Does it Matter?

(Courtesy of The Persistent Palate)

Day 228: I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food. 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…

Cooking with class 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…

Wine with Class 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

Bacon & mushroom pasta

About Ashley Hausman

Originally from Wisconsin, Ashley moved to Colorado to hike and climb mountains as soon as she had a B.A. in hand. Quickly she learned, she needed to find a career. So she went back to grad school to get her PhD in English & American Literature, beginning with a Masters at New York University. A few long papers, a thesis and a masters degree later, she found wine was not only an incredible way to enhance Derridean studies, but it had its own story to tell: of regions, soils, cultures and farming. While Woolf still had her heart, Burgundy was creeping in… She decided to postpone the PhD and go for the plunge. Now, she manages Little’s Wine & Spirits near the University of Denver. She orders by day, sips and tells all in her blog by night, and runs private wine parties in between in addition to giving advice on cellar building, wine vacations and food pairing. It’s a passion that grows only more complex with every passing vintage.

  • Jess

    Amen, sister! If it doesn’t taste good when you drink it, it won’t taste good on the plate. I think it’s a good idea to seek out a house red and white for your home and always have it on hand for cooking and drinking. Nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe and realizing there is no wine in the house!

  • Julie


    I am cooking a chicken alfredo and penne dish tonight for a bunch of people I work with and I am wondering what red I should serve with the dish. Is there a fairly cheap red that I can buy that is not your standard cab or merlot that will really make the dish taste awesome?


  • ashley

    Hey Julie,

    I’m thinking with a creamy rich alfredo to accompany a lighter white meat, you will likely find more success with a lighter, high acid red vs a full bodied, oaky red like Cab or Merlot. The acidity will work wonder to cut through the cream-based sauce, in order to allow you taste both the wine and the food without one or the other competing for attention. Pinot is the easy choice, but it certainly not known for its modest price tag, especially if you are looking for something with a little character. Perhaps consider a Barbara d’Alba (Casalone makes a fantastic one for $15, or Ca del Sarto for $10). You could also do any number of wines from the Rhone–Ventoux can offer some incredible, inexpensive finds like Cave la Romaine at $10 or go with the Domaine des Rozet Tricastin at $9. You could even get away with an inexpensive, youthful Tempranillo from Navarra or Rioja (Vina Sardasol makes one for about $10). If you want to stay true to the red, white and blue, consider asking your local retailer for a light blend–especially if it has some Italian varietals going on. There are many out there under $12.

    Hope this helps! Whatever you do this dish needs: earth, fruit, acid, minimal to no oak and medium body. If those can be answered, you should have a yummy result.

  • ashley

    PS- I happen to know that most of these wines are the store I manage: Little’s Wine & Spirits. If you are anywhere near the DU area, you could pop in for them today!