We made pan sauces and beef and chicken stews with red and white wines from a range of calibers and price points. Some wines were lovely to drink, some were uninspiring, and some were downright terrible.
Our results turned the old adage on its head. Not only did some cheap bottles (a $4 Sauvignon Blanc and a $4 Cabernet Sauvignon) make perfectly good additions to our stews and sauces, but a few very fine drinking wines (a subtly sweet Riesling, an oaky California Chardonnay, a tannic Bordeaux, and a sweet Italian Lambrusco) actually imparted flavors to the food that we didn’t like.
The important factor to consider isn’t price or even how nice a wine is to drink but whether it features distinct characteristics that will become concentrated through cooking and distract from the flavor of the dish. In other words, the best wine for cooking is an unremarkable one. Bright, balanced flavors are good. Distinctly tannic, sweet, or oaky flavors are not.
Overall, don’t hesitate to reach for the cheap stuff!