Red Wine Vs White: Which Is Better In French Onion Soup?

Wine is not only a delicious drink pairing for fancy meals but also a key ingredient for cooking iconic dishes, from risotto to beef bourguignon. Typically, most recipes that utilize wine as a foundational ingredient are anything but ambiguous with whether to use red or white — they have distinct flavor profiles and chemical properties that aren't interchangeable. French onion soup, however, presents a rare case in which chefs and recipes contend for the viability of both red and white wine.

The origins of the modern recipe of French onion soup are contested; some argue that it was the creation of King Louis XV, who made the soup with butter, champagne, and onions because they were the only ingredients on hand, while others state that the King got the recipe from fellow noblemen, who ate it at an inn in the Champagne region. Both versions of history point to white wine as the classic choice for French onion soup. White wine tends to be sweet, acidic, and delicate, instilling a bright, tangy complement to the rich caramelized sweetness of the onions.

That said, French onion soup's other key ingredients are beef broth and gruyere cheese, which accounts for its utterly decadent and robust balance of sweet, creamy, and umami. For umami-rich beef dishes and ultra-creamy cheeses, red wine's complexity, fruitiness, and bitter finish are the optimal choices. Tasting Table's recipe for an easy French onion soup falls in the red wine camp, but some authentic French recipes use dry white wine.

Red or white? It's up to you!

Red and white wine are both worthy flavoring agents for French onion soup and a matter of personal preference. Perhaps the question you should ask yourself is which flavors you want to emphasize. A fruity, tart, dry white wine is a classic choice that will add a lighter, more delicate balance to the otherwise strong flavors of onions, beef broth, and cheese. Red wine has a robust, sophisticated profile that will offset the strength of the other ingredients and add yet another layer of intensity.

Whichever wine you choose, make sure it comes from a bottle that you enjoy drinking independently. As there are many different types of red and white wines, another pertinent question is: Which type of red or white wine will best pair with a French onion soup? If you're worried about red wine's bitter tannin aftertaste, you could choose a merlot. That said, the fat from the gruyere and the umami richness of the beef broth would also pair well with a full-bodied, sweet port.

Dry white cooking wines like sherry, vermouth, and sauvignon blanc will deliver a fruity acidity that supplies a more elegant underlying flavor enhancement — it's the same elegance that gives dishes like seafood cioppino or mushroom risotto their je ne sais quois depth of flavor. Furthermore, many recipes recommend adding two different types of white wine. Julia Child used dry white wine and cognac, while others use dry sherry and floral Touraine.