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May 4, 2008 02:31 PM

TYPES of red wines for cooking...

I've been making braise beef with red wine and couldn't understand why the sauce kept coming out so bitter when I've made it so good before. Then I found out that using a Cotes du Rhone gave a peppery taste to the sauce. Not what I was looking for at all! So I was wondering if someone could help me run down the differences in the TYPES of red wine used for cooking. The popular ones are: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfendel, and Syrah.

Obviously the Syrah is out given my bad experience with the Cotes. I don't like using Merlot, but only because I've found that my sauces come out an unattractive purple color. I guess that leaves the Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Zinfendel. So what are the general differences between these three?

I've had a great experience with the Pinot Noir; haven't ever tried a Cabernet or Zinfendel. Ideally, I'm looking for something that lends to a more sweet, fruity sauce. Something that lightens the "beefiness" of the meat rather than adds to it.

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  1. I've actually had pretty good luck using syrah in cooking, so I don't think it's the grape that's the problem, as much as the wine itself. My general rules:
    1) Don't use anything that's been aged in oak - those sauces come out bitter.
    2) Avoid tannic wines - those sauces come out harsh.
    3) Avoid brettanomyces.

    I don't like using Cabernet because the flavor is so distinctive that it overpowers the dishes I've used it in. I like Pinot and Zin - I also really like sangiovese for cooking. And give syrah another shot, but try a Californian one - I'm guessing the Cotes du Rhone you used was a little brett-y and oaky.

    1. A few Côtes du Rhône are all or mostly Syrah but most aren't. They're typically a blend of southern Rhône varieities like Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah. CDR is also made in a variety of styles, from light and fruity to structured and full to overextracted and overoaked. That said, it's surprising to hear excessive bitterness associated with the wine that's usually not and that's been the basis for countless daubes and other braised beef dishes. Certainly I've never encountered it before. Which CDRs have you been using? Are you sure the problem stems from the wine? And are bitter and peppery the same thing?

      From the sounds of it, you're probably best off looking to a Pinot Noir -- a generally lighter, redder, less tannic wine with berry and earth flavours that goes very well with beef (think boeuf bourguignon). Cabernet can be tannic (tannins may be what you're objecting to). Modern-day Zinfandel is awfully fruity for general cooking purposes, often alcoholic and almost always purpler than Merlot. Whichever wine you opt for, look for one that's unoaked or only lightly oaked. And try to avoid highly tannic wines, especially if reducing the sauce.

      2 Replies
      1. re: carswell

        Thanks for the info! I'm thinking Pinot Noir too. When I'm using red wine for a sauce I'm always thinking/expecting beef bourguinon. The CDR didn't really make it bitter, it was just really peppery and really beefy when I was really expecting something very strongly wine-tasting. I couldn't really taste the CDR at all, just a whole lof of beef. The 1st time I made it I used a traditional burgandy and it was HEAVEN! Honestly, I don't think there's any food in the world that smells as good as beef bourginon!

        1. re: carswell

          I tend to agree with this poster, especially his/her recs in the final paragraph, which are very sound. I'll add only that your red should also have a healthy amount of acidity, especially for a braise, which may be another reason your CDR didn't perform as well as your Burgundy.

          If decent Burgundy or New World Pinot is a little too dear to dump into a dutch oven (it would be for me), I'd suggest you look at Loire Valley Cab Franc (Chinon, Bourgeuil), Piemontese Barbera or one of the weightier cru Beaujolais (Morgon, Moulin-a-vent) as a substitute.

        2. Hi,
          I like using a cab, a sangiovese, or a burgundy when I'm needing a big wine taste for a sauce. Otherwise I'd use a Pinot---not a zin. I love Zins, but I think they have a pretty peppery taste so that could interfer with your dish. If you want a more fruity sauce the Pinot or maybe even a rose ( not a sweet one)should work just fine. I agree with daveena, stay away from wines that have been oak aged, they can really effect the taste of the sauce. I think Cooks mag. did a taste test not to long ago and found that when your cooking with wine your don't need a great wine even the two buck chuck worked fine. I don't think I'd use a really cheap wine for a quick cooking sauce tho, then you'd prob. want a better tasting wine.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jackie de

            That was a New York Times article titled
            "It Boils Down To This: Cheap Wine Works Fine."

            Also, please see this thread on red wines for braising:

          2. Dolcetto, the "little sweet one". I's usually a dry wine, but has low tannin and a delicious blueberry fruitiness that concentrates beautifully in cooking.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Melanie, the Dolcetto is a great suggestion! Would a Rosso di Montalcino also give a similar result?

              1. re: moh

                I don't have much experience cooking with Rosso di Montalcino or other Sangiovese-based wines. I imagine that it might be a little closer to the result you'd get with Pinot Noir.

                I'll add that the OP might want to consider cooking with WHITE wine instead. Not tried it with beef, but I use white frequently for lamb braises and like the results much better. The white still gives that wine-y complexity in the background, but doesn't mask the flavor of the meat as much. Also, the sauce looks like browned meat and veggies instead of dyed red.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Yes to white! Alsatian baeckeofe (one of several spellings) is perhaps the most famous of France's red meat and potatoes plus white wine hotchpots. Great slow food.

                  Also, I almost always use white wine to deglaze pans after frying beef or lamb steaks. As you say, it lets the flavour of the pan juices -- sometimes with chopped shallots and herbs softened in the fat before deglazing -- shine through while providing an acid lift and looking much more appealing on the plate.

              2. re: Melanie Wong

                Interesting idea. Have you ever cooked with Dolcetto, Melanie? I haven't and would be interested in hearing how it works.

                I'd always thought of Dolcetto as low tannin until tthis winter when, at a couple of Piedmont tastings, we tasted several alongside some Barberas. To my surprise, the Barberas came across as low tannin, the Dolcettos much less so, quite raspy in fact. Robinson (Oxford Companion to Wine) would appear to agree: "While low in acidity, relative to Barbera at least, and therefore dolce (sweet) to the Piedmontese palate, Dolcetto ('little sweet one') does have significant tannins, which producers have learned to soften with shorter fermentations. So rich are the skins of Dolcetto in anthocyanins that even the shortest fermentation rarely compromises the deep ruby and purple tones of the wine." Even if vinified to be soft, the deep purple tint might give the OP pause.

                1. re: carswell

                  I have to credit my friend, Oliver, for the dolcetto idea. A few years ago I had dropped him a line about a bottle of Langhe nebbiolo that he imports of an off-vintage that I'd used as a lower cost sub for Barolo to make brasato al barolo. He replied that I should try dolcetto next time for my gravy, that's what he uses and he has his pick of any Italian variety in his portfolio. Oh, I just found my four year old post on this,

                  Anyway, the dolcetto does make a purple gravy with more fruitiness than nebbiolo lends. You are right, the deep color might not suit the OP.

                  Thanks for doing the research. Like acidity, the tannin level in dolcetto is relative. I was thinking lower than nebbiolo, its piemonte kin, but guess that isn't saying much! As you point out, barbera is quite low in tannin, perhaps the lowest of the popular red grapes.