I always have leftover bottles to fortify, enrich and deglaze dishes, and to sip while I’m preparing. When cooking with wine, I consider these four factors: alcohol, acidity, flavors & aromas, and tannins.
Alcohol itself doesn’t add flavor to dishes but helps dissolve fats in foods, which releases and reveals flavors. However, if you don’t let most of the alcohol cook off, your food may have a harsh, slightly boozy taste. When making a sauce with wine, cook uncovered until it reduces by about half. As the alcohol burns away, the flavor of the sauce will concentrate.
Think about Acidity. Have you ever paired a tomato dish with Merlot? The acid in tomatoes burns right through this low-acid wine, making it seem flat. Chianti, on the other hand, is a terrific choice for tomato-based dishes because its sangiovese grape has enough acid to compete. Tip: match the intensity of the dish to the intensity of the wine.
Flavors & Aromas should be shared. Think about wines that have similar characteristics to the dish you are preparing. A Pinot Noir from Burgundy has flavors and aromas of mushrooms, which makes it lovely in a beef stroganoff or mushroom soup. A lemony seafood dish might respond well to a wine with a nice, bright citrus flavor like Sauvignon Blanc. A cream sauce with shrimp will likely match up well with a creamy, buttery Chardonnay.
Tannins affect our total eating experience. Beef dishes are a classic partner for Cabernet Sauvignon because Cabernet’s high level of tannins are attracted to the proteins in the meat, which makes the wine less astringent and creates a softer mouthfeel. That said, a low protein vegetable stir-fry or soup will work better with a less tannic wine, like Pinot Noir, or a white.
And finally, after weighing these four factors, remember never to cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink or serve a friend — and then take a sip!