How good does a cooking wine have to be?

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It’s not the quality but the composition that counts when you’re unleashing your inner Keith Floyd

In Elizabeth David’s 1960 classic French Provincial Cooking there is a recipe for coq au vin taken from La Cloche d’Or restaurant in Dijon. Along with the cockerel, bacon, onions, garlic, stock and bay, the list of local ingredients includes “a bottle of old burgundy”.

It strikes me that this is exactly the kind of instruction to frighten a nervous cook. A bottle of old burgundy – or even David’s modification, “inexpensive but sound red burgundy” – is not the kind of thing that most of us have knocking about the kitchen. “Sound”, or for that matter unsound, red burgundy tends to start some distance north of a tenner, while the price of “old red burgundy” sets off gracefully towards the stratosphere. When most of us are generally unwilling to pay that much on a bottle to drink, why would we choose to squander our rare bottle of splash-out wine by splashing it in a glorified stew?

The same question applies to any dish that calls for wine. Just how good does the wine need to be? Or, if the recipe asks for a precise variety or region, just how authentic? Will it really make any difference if I just throw in some of the nearest bottle of plonk?

As an amateur cook who uses wine fairly randomly – splashing a glass or two into the bolognese or Sunday gravy if I happen to have some left over – I’ve always been sceptical about recipes that specify much beyond dry or sweet, red or white. If my nose can be thrown off the scent and taste of a wine by a dusty glass or a strong smell in the room, what hope do I have of discerning any of its subtleties once the wine has spent two hours undergoing a radical chemical transformation while bubbling in a pot?

A wine needn’t be good – and certainly not expensive – to work in the kitchen, but it doesn’t follow that any wine will do for any recipe. The quality may be secondary, but composition matters most.

Sweetness is the most obvious thing to watch out for. A 75cl bottle of off-dry white wine will have the equivalent of roughly two or three teaspoons of sugar; a 37.5cl bottle of dessert wine could have as many as 40. Much of that sugar will stay in the dish. And while a splash of something in the latter range might just work for a sweet variation on pork with apples and cider, it wouldn’t be so welcome in a risotto.

There are also styles where the flavours and aromas are particularly robust and seem to linger. The floral aromas of wines made from the muscat and gewürztraminer grapes have lengthy aromatic half-lives, as does the Marmite tang of wines aged in barrels under a layer of yeast, such as fino and manzanilla sherry, and vin jaune from the Jura. Equally long lasting is the vanilla nuttiness of wines exposed to oxygen in oak barrels, such as traditional rioja

Then there is the matter of density and acidity. At its most basic, you can see how important this is in the different texture you get if you use red rather than white. But it applies to all wines: the more acidic a wine, the more acidic the dish; the more fruit extract and tannin a wine has the deeper and richer it will be.

It’s an understanding of this simple observation that lies behind the specificity in David’s recipe. But even though I can’t speak from experience, I’m pretty sure a wine of similar weight and acidity, whether a Romanian pinot noir or a beaujolais, will do the job as soundly as a bottle of old burgundy. Blandy’s Duke of Clarence Madeira NV (£12, Tesco, Waitrose)correct

It’s almost a shame to throw a wine as good as this in with the beef stock and butter of a classic Madeira sauce. But you only need a glass, leaving the rest of the bottle for drinking with fruit cake, mature hard cheese or on its own as a digestif.

Six of the best cooking wines

Blandy’s Duke of Clarence Madeira NV (£12, Tesco, Waitrose)
It’s almost a shame to throw a wine as good as this in with the beef stock and butter of a classic Madeira sauce. But you only need a glass, leaving the rest of the bottle for drinking with fruit cake, mature hard cheese or on its own as a digestif.

Marks & Spencer Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche Gamay 2014 (£6)
Similar in composition to an old red burgundy, and from a region not too far away, this spicy gamay would add an authentic touch to a coq au vin as well as providing a refreshingly lively glass for the chef at a fraction of the price.

Waitrose Manzanilla Fina Sherry NV (£6.99)
The salty yeasty tang and umami savouriness of fino and manzanilla sherry add a distinctive note to soups, broths and stir-fries, and work superbly with mushrooms, broad beans, ham and garlicky prawns, both in and alongside the dish.

Molera Prosecco Spumante, Italy NV (£7.49, Bargain Booze)
More of a wine’s flavours are likely to survive the freezing rather than the cooking process, which is why I try to use a decent prosecco to make a granita with mint and strawberries or pink grapefruit. Molera’s icing-sugar-soft and relatively dry example works just fine.

Morrisons Signature Valpolicella Ripasso Italy 2012 (£7.49)
An intriguing darker alternative take on a classic risotto is made in the Veneto region using the deep, dense but pricey dried-grape red amarone; at home this cheaper alternative provides a similar dark chocolate and cherry bittersweet kick.

Sainsbury’s House Dessert Wine Rheinhessen, Germany (£4, 37.5cl)
Perfectly good for drinking with fruit desserts and cheese, the luscious peachy fruit and vibrant acidity of this balanced, budget sweet wine means it’s also great fun to cook with, either added to fruit in a meat sauce or reduced on a high heat to a sticky syrup for ice cream.

Powered by article was written by David Williams, for The Observer on Sunday 23rd August 2015 07.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010