What’s the Best Red Wine for Cooking? These 4 Varieties Are Basically Foolproof

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·7 mins read

As magical as red wine is to drink, it can really work wonders in sauces, stews and desserts. And once the weather cools down, ’tis the season for cooking with it every chance we get. There’s no shortage of bottles that could work for a recipe, but there are a few specific styles to stick to when you’re on the hunt for the best red wine for cooking: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chianti. Read on to find out why they work and get our bottle (and recipe) recommendations.

RELATED: What’s the Best White Wine for Cooking? Here Are the Top Bottles (and How to Choose Them, According to 3 Food Pros)

How to Choose a Red Wine for Cooking

First, let’s go over the basics.

Why cook with wine in the first place?

Wine doesn’t only impart tons of flavor and richness to tomato sauce, pasta dishes and pan sauces, but its acidity is actually great for tenderizing meat. Similar to other acidic ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar and yogurt, wine breaks down the connective tissues in meat (aka collagen and muscle) and helps it to retain its juices.

Are red wine and white wine interchangeable?

Although both red wine and white wine tenderize and moisten, their flavor profiles generally fit different foods. So, just because red wine and white wine have similar effects on food doesn’t mean you should use any old wine. So no, you can’t substitute red wine in recipes that call for white—white wines offer brightness, acidity and a light softness, while red wines are used for bold, hearty dishes that can withstand its bitter, intense flavors. Because red wine is more tannic than white, it turns bitter faster when cooked. That’s why white wine is popular in seafood and chicken recipes, while red wine is key in roasts and meaty stews. Red wine can also be used in marinades and glazes. So, dry red wines with moderate tannins are safest to include in recipes. If you choose a wine that’s too bitter and tannic, your food might turn out more or less inedible.

While red wine can break down big, fatty cuts of meat, it can also keep lighter proteins like fish super moist and impart great flavor. Here’s an easy red wine style guide to stick to while you’re shopping:

  • If you’re cooking beef, lamb or stew, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are your friends.

  • If you’re cooking chicken, duck or pork, go with Merlot.

  • If you’re cooking seafood, choose Pinot Noir.

  • If you’re cooking vegetables or sauce, try a light Merlot or Chianti.

The Best Red Wine for Cooking

1. Merlot

Merlot is typically soft, silky and fruit-forward. And thanks to its low to mild tannins, it’s pretty much always safe to cook with (read: your dish won’t be ruined by the wine’s bitterness). Merlot is great for pan sauces and reductions, offering jamminess and structure—just simmer it over low heat to thicken it and concentrate its juicy flavors. Depending on the quality, Merlot can range from simple to mind-blowingly complex. Rich Merlots are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, full-bodied and structured with notes of stone fruit, chocolate, coffee and tobacco. Use a lighter, fruity, medium-bodied Merlot for chicken and sauces and a full-bodied one for short ribs, steak and lamb.

Try it: 2014 Quail Creek Merlot

Buy it ($11.99)

2. Cabernet Sauvignon

Come winter, consider this style your new dinner date. Cabs are complex, like a more intense Merlot. They age beautifully and are great for hearty dishes. When used in braising, it turns meat fall-off-the-bone tender. Côtes du Rhône wines, blends hailing from vineyards around the Rhône River, are great substitutes for Cab, too. They’re usually full and rich like Pinot Noir, but since they’re made from a blend of grapes instead of just one, they may help balance the flavor of your dish better. Be sure to use Cabernet when cooking meals like steak, short ribs, brisket or stew. This style’s oak notes can turn harsh and woody when cooked too quickly or with weaker ingredients, so skip pan sauce and tomato sauce.

Try it: 2017 Carving Board Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Buy it ($19.99)

3. Pinot Noir

They’re silky, earthy, acidic, smooth and come light- and medium-bodied. This style is versatile, great for both stews and soft, fatty meats, thanks to its tenderizing properties, as well as seafood and poultry. It tends to be fruity and earthy in flavor with berry and mushroom notes. Pinot Noir aged in oak barrels, like Cabernet, isn’t best for quick sauces, but rather low-and-slow recipes. Keep an eye out for red Burgundy when you’re at the liquor store too—some winemakers use that name for Pinot Noir after the region where the grapes are grown (they may be a little pricier). Use Pinot Noir for salmon, duck or stew recipes.

Try it: 2017 Talbott Kali Hart Pinot Noir

Buy it ($15)

4. Chianti

If you’ve never sipped a glass alongside an Italian dinner, you’re missing out big time. Chianti is famous for its herbaceous, earthy, peppery flavor, but it can also be on the fruity, delicate side. Sangiovese wines, named for the main grape used in Chianti, have a signature tart acidity and spiciness that make them an uncanny stand-in for Chianti. Chianti is best for tomato sauce, pasta dishes and pan sauces rather than hearty stews. Even higher-quality Chianti that’s more tannic and fuller-bodied isn’t bold or dense enough to do a Cab’s job.

Try it: 2017 Rocca Di Castagnoli Chianti Classico

Buy it ($20)

Tips for Cooking with Red Wine

OK, now you know which varieties to look for next time you’re at the liquor store or wine shop. But there’s more you should know before hitting the kitchen. Here are a few more rules of thumb to take note of:

  • Cooking wine and regular wine are two different things—so you shouldn’t substitute them interchangeably. Chris Morocco, senior food editor at Bon Appétit, advises to stay away from cooking wine altogether. The heat will cook off the wine’s alcohol content, so there’s no need to start with alcohol-free cooking wine (that’s the kind you’ll see in the vinegar aisle at the supermarket). Cooking wine also has salt and preservatives in it, which can alter the overall dish. Regular wine offers more dependable acidity and flavor.

  • Stay away from Shiraz, Zinfandel and extra intense, full-bodied reds. Because of their tannic nature, they can turn your food bitter or chalky. If one of these is all you have, only use it for the heartiest of dishes, like leg of lamb or brisket. Be careful with sweet, berry-forward reds like Beaujolais nouveau and Grenache too; they can turn a dish overly sweet if the recipe isn’t acidic enough to balance it.

  • Avoid using old wine. If you opened a bottle over a week ago, it’s been oxidizing and likely tastes different than you remember. When in doubt, just crack open a new bottle—though it isn’t inherently unsafe to use old wine even if the flavor has changed, just in case you’re desperate.

  • Don’t use expensive or fancy wine either. Most of its delicious intricacies and complexities will be cooked off once the wine is heated, so it’s really a waste of quality vino. Heat can make the unappetizing qualities in a low-quality wine more apparent, but typically price doesn’t matter much as long as you’re using the right style. You can definitely find tons of solid bottles in the $10 to $20 range, so use those for cooking and save the good stuff for sipping.

  • Cook wine low and slow, no matter what you’re making. Cook’s Illustrated tested a ton of red wines for cooking and found that no matter the wine, cooking it over high heat (say for a pan sauce or tomato sauce) will often result in an edgy, sour taste. They even tested the same sauce recipe, one rapidly simmered and the other slowly reduced, and found they tasted completely different.

  • Cook with wines you like to drink. If it tastes good to you out of a glass, you’ll probably be pleased with how it tastes in your food.

Recipes with Red Wine

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