I don’t know how often you read wine chatter on the internets, but a well-used adage I’ve come across many times is the following: “never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” Inevitably this is interpreted to mean “never cook with wine you wouldn’t serve a guest” or even “never cook with wine under $30”.
This is pure insanity. I cook with wine, often. And sometimes, like my refrigerator magnet says, I even put it in the food. But when I do put wine in my stews, braises, etc… it is never, NEVER a bottle over $10. I have, in my wine drinking career, certainly tasted horrible wines before. If I truly were compelled to spit a wine out after a single sip, then no, I wouldn’t cook with it. But wine will transform when cooked, so taking anything with complex, interesting nuances and a silky mouthfeel and wasting it in a pot on the stove is simply criminal.
I keep on hand some lovely Columbia Crest bottles, in the $6-$8 range, for my cooking needs. Merlot and Cabernet, mostly, for the reds and then a cheap Sauvignon Blanc for the whites (oaked Chardonnay I find a riskier bet, since the oak taste might transfer to a lighter final dish. In a pinch, though, I’ve used an oaked white, and I don’t recall being disappointed in the results). These are wines I would happily drink, in that if someone served me a glass at a party I would say to myself, “Thank god they didn’t hand me the white zin” and sip gladly. It might not make my toes tingle, I might not ask for a refill, but I would drink it. And these wines perform excellently in my dishes, if I do say so myself.
In other instances, like yesterday morning, I take advantage of the fact that a bottle of cheap wine is called for, and I go shopping. My stash of Columbia Crest having dwindled, I realized that the night’s lamb shank braise required 2 cups of red, so I picked up a bottle of a familiar Tempranillo at the grocery store. The Paso a Paso produced by Bodegas Volver is a wine I first met a few years ago, during my initial foray into wine. I recall liking it quite a bit, and I looked up my note on Cellartracker just to see. Here is my note on the 2006, which was written in April of 2009:
well, this was quite the bargain. nose: hints of stewed plums, this wine holds its own with some oak nuance and ripe fruit
palate: yummy, some raisin tendencies, but acidity and oak integration is killer. Tad hot on the finish, but I’m really just picking apart the flaws in this note.
In actuality, this is a really good, really pleasing wine. For a great price. I wish it were easier to find around here. 89 points.
The bottle I picked up at the store this weekend, though, has had a facelift since 2006. Now bright orange, it screams “Organic” while hiding its vintage date. Seriously – I hunted front and back on the thing – is this now marketed as a non-vintage wine??
Naturally, I took a taste before cooking with it. The nose had a bruised red/black fruit thing going on, which wasn’t horrible but is not my favorite aroma. The palate felt a little stale, sporting slightly bitter tannin and fairly straightforward acid. The fruit wasn’t particularly interesting, but I didn’t hate it. Knowing there were good wines coming later in the evening, I didn’t finish my glass, choosing instead to dump it into the braising liquid with the remainder of the bottle.
In the end this wine was satisfactory, but not more. Either the earlier versions of the wine were better or my taste has become significantly more discerning. Or both. But what really matters is that I only spent $10. And the lamb was delicious.