It's a common dilemma: The recipe calls for wine, but how low can you go on the price tag without compromising the integrity of the recipe?
Although kitchen sages of yore will tell you to use the same wine to accompany the dish as that which went into its preparation, it doesn't have to be that way. The ideal "cooking" wine really depends on the purpose the wine serves in the recipe.
Meat dishes that incorporate several cups of red wine, for example, are using wine as a tenderizer. Much of it will cook off and concentrate. For this reason, it is important to add a wine that is not overly tannic, otherwise the sauce or pot juices will be quite bitter in the end.
A modest red with moderate tannin and acidity will work wonderfully. Look to Chilean merlot, Italian sangiovese or Montepulciano, French Cote du Rhone and Spanish tempranillo for budget-conscious reds that will fit the bill for braising and stewing.
White wines are often used in copious quantities to steam mussels, cook rice in paellas or risottos or de-glaze pans for sauce-making. As the time in the pot is short and sweet, a piquant wine with good fruit will add both interest and acidity to the final product. Reasonably priced bottlings that make muster include New Zealand sauvignon blanc ($13 or less) and French Picpoul de Pinet ($9). Both will add fruit and vibrancy without breaking the bank.
The product to avoid at all costs, whether red or white, are the "cooking wines" found in supermarkets. They are laced with 1 percent salt and will significantly alter the taste of any dish. If added to the pot and then concentrated over a lengthy cooking period, the final meal can easily become too salty to eat.
If wine is to be incorporated into a dish at the end as a finishing agent, it is usually added in much smaller quantities and plays a significant flavor-enhancing role. This is where the difference between a $12 wine and an $18 bottling will start to factor into the integrity of the recipe.
By way of example, seafood bisques often are finished with a splash of amontillado sherry. Many are served with a small glass of the same. A quality product is vital.
Beef Bourgogne often is finished with brandy. A decent VSOP will do the trick. Cheaper generic offerings only will add alcohol (vs. flavor), and flavor is key when beverage alcohol is added at the end.
Your classic dishes reference classic wines by way of preparation. If they call for Sauternes or Chablis or Burgundy, they mean the real deal—not the "hearty Burgundy" offerings or faux "Chablis" coming out of California. There are modest-priced Sauternes, Chablis and Burgundies coming out of these classic wine regions of France, but alternate budget options for Sauternes can be found from Saint-Croix-Du Mont, Loupiac, Cadillac, Montbazillac, Saussignac and Rosette. Chablis and Burgundy are tougher to replace in-kind on a budget, but an unoaked chardonnay from a cool climate growing area can rise to the task as can a cool climate pinot noir with a light barrel regimen, in a pinch.
The litmus test with regard to price point is really the quantity of the product being used and where it is added in the cooking process. Use budget wines if using them by the boatload; superior wines if the quantity is small. Start the dish with something simple; finish the dish with something fantastic.