In most cases, Coq au Vin is simply chicken cooked in wine. There are several variations, in particular:
In the French region of Bourgogne (which the English know as Burgundy), a red wine is typically used. This is perhaps the most well-known version of Coq au Vin.
In some areas a white wine is used instead. Although these versions are less well known, I personally consider white wine more suitable as it complements the flavour of the chicken instead of over-powering it. After all, if one was serving a glass of wine with a chicken dish, it would be considered very odd to serve a red wine instead of a white wine. For similar reasons (white wine going better with fowl), I believe that Coq au Vin is best prepared with a white wine.
In Alsace, a Reisling white wine is traditionally used. This reflects the fact that Alsace is on the German border and has strong historical Germanic connections, which is reflected in both its food and wine. Cream and morel mushrooms may be added.
In the Franche-Comté a Vin Jaune white wine is traditionally used, with cream and morel mushrooms. Personally, I consider this to be the finest version of Coq au Vin. See the recipes below for further discussion.
Other regions of France may use either a red or a white wine, depending on local preferences and individual cooks.
Coq au Vin (rouge) - The best-known version of Coq au Vin
Coq au Vin (blanc) - A simple meal, which is widely appreciated
Coq au Vin avec Creme - An elegant but simple recipe
Coq au Vin (Vin Jaune, Cream, Morels) - The king of Coq au Vin recipes
Coq au Vin - Name:
Coq is the French word for "cock" (as in Rooster, or male chicken). Vin is French for "wine" and "au" is French for "of the". Consequently, "Coq au Vin" literally translates as "Cock of the wine". However, as literal translations are not that meaningful, a better translation would be "Cock cooked with wine".
Until the 20th century it was common for rural families to have some chickens (for eggs and meat) and a rooster. The rooster would be kept until it was too old to perform its duties, at which time it would be killed and eaten. However, by this time the meat would be hard and stringy, so cooking it slowly in wine would tend to soften the meat and make it more edible. As such, the recipe has historically been considered "peasant food" or "poor people's food" as the well-off would be able to afford a better cut of meat which would not require slow cooking in wine in order to be edible.
In modern times, few people would choose to eat an old cock. Consequently, most modern versions use a chicken instead of a cock. As such, if one was being exact, the recipe would be called "Poule au Vin" (chicken cooked in wine). However, the old name "coq au vin" is always used, even if a chicken is substituted for the traditional cock.
Some people will use a "capon" (a young, castrated rooster) instead of a chicken or a cock. This is fairly rare as a "capon" is quite expensive. Also, the meat of a capon is so fine that one could argue that it's taste should not be masked by cooking it in wine.
Coq au Vin - Origin:
The origin of the recipe is unknown. There are two popular myths as to its source: Napoleon and Caesar.
The first myth is that Napoleon unexpectedly stopped at an inn while travelling. The innkeeper had little food to serve (perhaps due to the deprivations associated with the Napoleonic wars) aside from an old rooster and some inferior wine. In desperation, the innkeeper cooked the rooster in the wine, with onions, herbs and some vegetables. To everyone's surprise, it was very tasty, too the point that the recipe became part of the standard French cuisine.
In fact, while a pleasant tale, it is defeated by the fact that written records of the recipe pre-date Napoleon by hundreds of years. However, it is not impossible that the recipe was re-invented in the method described.
The other popular myth holds that when Caesar conquered the area subsequently known as France, the inhabitants presented him with an old rooster as tribute. Caesar's cook used wine (which was very popular with Romans) to make the meat palatable. Again, although an amusing tale (and expressive of French pride), there is no historical basis for it.
What is known is that the recipe is very old (at least 400 years) but did not become popular until the early 1900s. Since then it has become one of the best known French recipes, both within and outside of France. The affordability of chicken and reasonable-quality wine, as opposed to its traditional old rooster and inferior wine, has transformed it during the past century into fine cuisine, from its original roots in poverty and the need not to waste any food.