Wine is often used in cooking as a component of classic sauces.
The acidity in wine adds tartness, the residual sugars contribute sweetness and the drink’s flavours and aromas give varying degrees of savouriness. When reduced by cooking, all of these become more concentrated. If red wine is cooked on its own, the tannins can become astringent, which is why it is usually reduced with a meat stock, to balance the flavours. Many chefs believe a gentle simmer, rather than a fast boil, makes a better sauce.
Many classic French dishes feature wine. Bourguignonne has its base in red burgundy simmered with shallots and a stock made from beef bones and a mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery). Bordelaise sauce uses a Bordeaux red wine and demi-glace, a rich beef stock reduced to a thick syrupy consistency.
White wine sauces are, of course, lighter than those based on reds. A basic white wine sauce is made by simmering the wine with shallots and herbs (such as thyme, chervil and tarragon) until it is reduced to about a quarter of the liquid’s original volume, then unsalted butter is whisked in to add richness and give it a velvety smoothness. Cream or crème fraîche can be added instead of butter. Sauce Lyonnaise uses basically the same ingredients but with a dash of white wine vinegar, to give it tanginess. This simple sauce is used to dress chicken and grilled fish.
A classic Italian dish that uses wine is osso buco, which literally means “bone with a hole”. Veal shanks are first browned then slowly braised with carrots, celery, onions, chicken stock and white wine. For about 2.5kg of shanks, you would need a bottle of wine and a litre of chicken stock, which sounds like a lot, but the veal needs enough liquid to cover it, to keep it moist while it is braising. The generous amount of wine tenderises the veal to a falling-off-the-bone texture.
Cheese and wine is a classic pairing but, with classic fondue, the wine is in the dish, as well as in the glass. In cheese fondue, wine contributes two important elements (aside from making it taste good): water to keep the casein proteins in the cheese moist and loose, and tartaric acid, which keeps calcium molecules off the casein, thus preventing it from becoming lumpy or stringy. What to do if your fondue starts to seize up once it gets down to the last bit in the pot? Add more wine! Not to your glass, but a splash in the fondue pot along with some vigorous stirring should rescue your fondue.
And, of course, you should never cook with a wine that isn’t good enough to be drunk on its own. It doesn’t need to be an expensive bottle, but if you use poor-tasting wine, the flavours won’t get any better when you cook with it.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers