And as with most simple questions, the answer is… Well, not so simple. We could post a list of types of white wines, but then, with our luck, you’ll stumble into the rare one that’s made in a sweet style.
So let’s start with the basics. Fermentation in wine is what happens when yeast consumes sugar in a juice and spits out alcohol. In most cases, we’re talking about grape juice, but wine can be made from any number of juices, including some stuff you don’t even want to think about as juice, such as parsnip and bell pepper (trust us, don’t go there). In dry wine, the yeast consumes all of the sugar in the wine before dying of alcohol poisoning. In sweet wines, either the fermentation is stopped or the alcohol is so high it kills off the remaining yeasts before it can consume all the sugar.
As Anne wrote in her mini-blog, From the Dark Side of the Fridge, earlier this week, dry wine has more acid in it, so it brightens flavors up. Which is why you generally use dry wine in cooking, as opposed to sweet wine. Sometimes, it will be a dry red wine, which usually goes with stronger flavored foods, such as beef. Often it will be a dry white wine, which is not only more acidic, it’s going to have a lighter flavor that won’t overwhelm other flavors in the dish.
So Which Dry Cooking Wine do I Buy?
All of the above is interesting, but admittedly not a lot of help when you’re at the grocery store staring at row upon row of wines, mostly grouped by grape variety or country of origin, and there’s no friendly shopkeeper within miles to help.
Wine snobs will tell you that you don’t want to buy any wine for cooking that you wouldn’t drink. But while the vast majority of what a wine snob will tell you is, indeed, a veritable load of horse manure, they’re sort of right on this one. Only sort of right.
You don’t want really, really horrible wine. Most jug wines fall into this category (though not all). That makes sense – anything that tends to be overly fruity or oxidized is not going to add the best flavor to your meal.
That being said, you don’t want really good wine, either. All the things that make really good wines good – the subtle layers of flavor, the interplay between tannins, acid and fruit – that’s all lost when you’ve added the meat and/or veggies, the herbs and other flavors and cooked it all together. So there’s no point in spending $30 for a bottle, then cooking out all of the reasons the bottle is worth $30 (assuming, of course, that you got one that really is worth $30, which is another post all together).
What you want is a basic bottle in the $5 to $7 range. The infamous Charles Shaw label from Trader Joe’s is perfectly acceptable for cooking and won’t set you back much more than $3.50 in most parts of the country ($2.50 in California). Red wines cabernet sauvignon and merlot are generally fermented dry. On the white side, you can generally count on chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to be dry. In fact, these are so commonly fermented dry that if they do happen to be made as sweet wines, it will say so on the label. Or should. Alas, nothing is absolute in the wine world. But it’s a pretty safe bet that something labeled cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc will be a dry wine.
Beware of anything that says “late harvest” on the label. That means the grapes were harvested well after most of their pals that became dry wine, which in turn means that there was more sugar in the grapes and it’s probably a sweet wine. The other thing to be aware of (although it’s an older thing that you see don’t too often in grocery stores anymore) is anything actually labeled “cooking wine.” It usually has salt added and is pretty nasty.
There are lots of other wines, both red and white, that are dry, and if you have a particular fave that’s generally on the wine rack or in the fridge, then there is absolutely no reason not to use it when the recipe or whatever you’re making calls for a dry red or white. As long as it tastes dry to you.