Chardonnay is a versatile wine grape: its flavor and aromas are easily influenced by where it's grown and how it's made. Fruit flavors range from apple and lime in cooler climates to tropical fruits in warmer places. When barreled in oak, it takes on a richness characterized by honey and butter flavors. When barreled in stainless steel, it often retains more mineral flavors and comes across as fresher on the palate. Chardonnay excels in Burgundy, France. Cool coastal areas of California also produce excellent Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is a favorite with seafood. Minerally versions, like those from Chablis, France, pair particularly well with oysters.
Riesling is a crisp, clean wine with green apple, pear and lime flavors. The best offer pleasing mineral qualities as well. With age, Riesling takes on honey flavors and attractive oily aromas. Riesling grows well in Germany, the Alsace region of France, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and parts of Australia and Washington State.
Riesling pairs nicely with spicy foods, poultry and pork. Try it with Thai food.
Pinot Gris is made from grapes that generally produce different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown and how they're handled in the cellar. In the Alsace region of France, and in places like Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Gris typically makes rich wines marked by a bit of spice. The Italian style (Pinot Grigio) tends to be fresh, crisp and refreshing.
Sample either style with seafood and pasta dishes, vegetarian food and poultry.
Sauvignon Blanc is a fresh, crisp, aromatic wine with grapefruit and grassy flavors. This wine is the star of the Loire region of France. It also shines in the Bordeaux region, where it is often blended with Semillon. In the New World, New Zealand has emerged as a prime spot for Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc is a food-friendly wine that goes well with many seafood, poultry and vegetable dishes.
Merlot is a soft, supple wine with nice fruit flavors of plums and blackberries and occasionally mint, chocolate and eucalyptus flavors and aromas. Typically, it is ready to drink earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, which sometimes needs a few years for its astringent tannins to mellow. Outside of Europe, New World Merlot shines in places like California, Chile and Washington State.
Cabernet Sauvignon is more assertive than Merlot, with more tannin and greater aging potential. It can have flavors of blackberries, plums, black currants, and cassis. Aged in oak, Cabernet Sauvignon can take on flavors of vanilla, cedar, chocolate, and coffee. Beyond Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon does well in Napa, California, where it produces smooth, ripe wines. Washington State, Chile and Australia are also making excellent Cabernet.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are very nice with meat dishes like beef and lamb.
Pinot Noir, a notoriously difficult grape to grow, made its mark initially in Burgundy, France. The grape continues to deliver single-varietal wines that are among the best in the world. Pinot Noirs are delicate wines that taste of red fruits like cherries, raspberries and strawberries. With age, flavors and aromas become more complex, developing earthy notes like mushrooms and decaying leaves. Burgundy in particular is noted for developing these earthy flavors. In the New World, tasty Pinot Noir is being made in Oregon, New Zealand, and some of the cooler appellations of California.
Pinot Noir is a versatile food wine, great with poultry, salmon, meat and vegetable dishes.
Syrah is at home in the Rhone region of France, where the grape makes spicy, rich, darkly delicious wines that increase in complexity as they age. Syrah also makes delicious wines in Australia, where it is marketed as Shiraz. Australian versions are typically big, bold and spicy with jammy fruit and aromas of leather and black fruit. Syrah also excels in Washington State, where it often displays an attractive acid balance, and in California, where the styles vary significantly.
Syrah is a very versatile wine that pairs well with a wide variety of foods. It's terrific with grilled meats.
Other Reds to Consider
is the wine grape that makes Chianti, a tremendous food wine with flavors and aromas of cherries and rose petals.
Nebbiolo is the grape variety that makes Barolo and Barbaresco, the noble (and pricey) red wines of the Piedmont region of Italy. With age, flavor notes of plums and cherries are enhanced by flavors of smoke, tar and roses.
Malbec is a star in Argentina, where it produces inky wines with an attractive smoke and leather quality. It also stands out in Cahors in southern France.
Tempranillo is a famous grape of Spain, where it is used in wines of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions.
Gamay makes the fresh and fruity, raspberry-flavored wines of the Beaujolais region of Burgundy.
Zinfandel has found its home in California, where it produces big, fruity, often spicy red wines.
Try these tasty appetizers with wine:
What's an AVA?
America's wine country is divided into American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The term is a legal designation. In practical terms, AVAs tell us where the wine grapes were grown. Most people refer to AVAs as "appellations," and the words are more or less interchangeable.
Taking California as an example, the state of California is itself an AVA. But California is also broken into smaller AVAs (like the North Coast) which in turn are divided into even smaller AVAs (like Napa Valley). The slicing and dicing doesn't stop there. Even within Napa Valley, places with unique climate and geology can have their own AVAs (Stag's Leap, for example).
On every wine bottle, the AVA will be featured prominently. If the AVA designated on the label reads "California," we know the grapes came from California vineyards--possibly from numerous places within the state. But a wine labeled North Coast will contain grapes from the North Coast. A Napa Valley label indicates grapes from Napa Valley. When you reach the Stag's Leap level, you are talking about grapes taken from a much more specific spot.
A wine with a more specific AVA designation does not necessarily guarantee superior quality, but it does indicate that conditions were unique enough in that given area to warrant special consideration.
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