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Wines

Wine buying guide

Last updated: October 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Food and wine are natural partners and, when they're compatible, they can each lift the other to a higher level of flavor. The problem is finding a perfect pairing. Consumer Reports' wine experts will not only help you find the best wines at a reasonable price but can also choose the best food-and-wine combination.

To select the right wine, red or white, just follow our advice here.

Consider the flavors you favor

Wines of a varietal share basic characteristics. Merlots, for example, typically have varying degrees of ripe fruit aromas--cassis, raspberry, black cherry, and plum--along with herbaceous or spicy "notes." But even within a varietal, wines can differ quite a bit because of their style: characteristics derived from the wine-making process. For example, some merlots have a woody or smoky/char flavor resulting from the toasted oak barrels in which they're aged. Pinot grigio typically has a dry and tart Old World style. Pinot gris, made from the same grape as pinot grigio, typically has a fuller-bodied, and sometimes "off dry" (sweeter), New World style. So don't write off a varietal because of a few bottles you didn't like. You might not have experienced its range of styles or quality.

Consider other taste attributes

Bitterness and astringency from grape tannins are among the qualities of "taste" that can characterize the total effect of the experience of a red wine, and might affect your preference.

When wine experts speak of structure, they mean a combination of alcohol, sweetness, acid, and tannins--the wine's basic taste components--that creates an almost three-dimensional sensation in your mouth. In general, better wines have a more detectable and pleasing structure.

Finish relates to how long the wine's taste and texture linger after swallowing. While all wines have alcohol, some create an undesirable sensation of heat in your mouth when the wine's alcohol level is too great.

Consider the food being served

Full-bodied wines (such as most cabernets and merlots) generally complement rich dishes, while fruity-style wines (such as sauvignon blancs or pinot grigio/gris) work with lighter fare, such as grilled fish. Fairly simple wines work well on their own as aperitifs. The more complex a wine, the wider the range of food flavors that will complement or enhance it.

Although particular wines are often associated with particular foods (as in the proverbial white-wine-with-fish rule), good wine pairing often has as much to do with sauces or a food's preparation as with the underlying fish, meat, or fowl. For example, spicy dishes can work well with off-dry wines that are low in tannins. A classic pairing for rich, fattier foods, including red meat, is a tannic red such as cabernet sauvignon.

Consider when you'll drink the wine

Most wines are fine for immediate consumption, but our tests have identified a few red wines with qualities (including the presence of mouth-puckering tannins) that could soften and improve if they're aged a year or two.

Don't automatically equate high price with high quality

It's true that many higher-priced wines are superb, and that the world's best wines rarely cost $5 or $10. But in our tests, some of the best wines are often relatively inexpensive. Conversely, some much more expensive wines have had mediocre scores.

Don't depend on consistency

Wines in the price range of those we test aim for, and often achieve, consistent quality from one vintage to another. If a wine we've rated highly isn't available in the vintage we tested, try the newer one. Still, wines can falter from one year to the next so taste the new wine before you order a case of it based on enthusiasm for an old vintage.

Don't assume all of the varietals a winery produces are as good as a paricilar varietal just because the winery maintains consistency within a varietal. Some producers, including many of the biggest California and Australian wineries, produce a wide range of varietals. While some such brands score well across their lineup, just as many have bottles that vary widely in quality among, say, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc.

How we test wine

At competitions, judges may taste a wine only once before rendering a verdict. At Consumer Reports, our tests are more rigorous and should more accurately reflect the tasting experience most people will have.

Our judges are two wine-industry experts who have collectively spent more than 60 years professionally tasting a wide range of wines. They begin each of our tests by calibrating their palates to the varietals they'll be testing. That involves blind-tasting everything from so-so to superb examples, to help set standards for what constitutes high quality. They're looking for the set of flavor attributes that best defines excellence for each varietal.

Then the real tests begin, one varietal at a time. Presented with filled glasses that are numbered and placed in random order, the experts taste each of the wines from three different bottles. For every wine that makes the cut, they fill out a ballot describing potential attributes and/or defects and scoring the wine's overall quality. Consumer Reports food experts and statisticians analyze the ballots to arrive at the Ratings.

And now, if you are wondering: After sniffing, sipping, and swishing, yes, the tasters do spit out the wine.

Read more about Wine myths and facts.

Types

No matter which type of wine you buy, remember that wine, especially a good one, is more enjoyable when served at a temperature that best brings out its flavors, aromas, and structure (that's wine speak for how it feels on your tongue).

Red wine

Some common red-wine varietals include: cabernet sauvignon, syrah/shiraz, malbec, merlot, zinfandel, and pinot noir.

Cabernet Sauvignon

A good bottle should mix herbal notes with dark berries and cassis. It might have notes of raspberry, black cherry, plum, and raisin, and bell pepper, pepper, and mint.

Carménère

This varietal has dark berry, vegetal, herbal, spicy characteristics, and might display some chocolate, tobacco, and leather notes. It should please anyone who enjoys merlot for its casual unpretentiousness.

Grenache/garancha

A red, berry-flavored, jammy, and sometimes spicy varietal that is generally blended with other varieties.

Malbec

A grape variety from Bordeaux, France, where it is used in blends, malbec is now especially successful in Argentina, bottled on its own as a varietal. This deeply colored red wine is fruity, medium bodied and, at its best, fairly complex.

Merlot

Merlots may have predominantly fruit aromas or offer a mix of fruit and wood on the nose. They may have herbaceous aromas in addition to typical dark-berry and spicy notes. Several merlots have been repeat high performers in our tests over the years, illustrating their typical dependability. We have found exceptional values that cost $10 or so a bottle.

Pinot noir

Subtle and moderately complex. Flavors include raspberry or strawberry, spicy notes, and cedar shavings. Typically dry, with medium finish.

Rioja

Wines from this region in Spain have a white version and a red version that is more popular. Red Riojas can have an assortment of fruity, spicy, and woody (oak, vanillin, cedar, smoky/char) notes. It is sometimes blended from several grapes and therefore might display elements of each individual grape.

Syrah/shiraz

This varietal, known as shiraz in Australia, syrah in France, and either term here in the U.S., should have a balance of fruit, tannins, acidity, and oak, with an assortment of fruity, spicy, and possibly woody aromas.

Tempranillo

This major red grape used in Rioja has aromas and flavors of berries and plum, and hints of tobacco and leather.

Zinfandel

Flavors may include raspberries and dark fruit, ripe and/or jammy fruit, spicy, peppery hints, leather, tobacco, and oak or smoky/charred notes. This varietal should be medium- to-full bodied, highly complex, well balanced, dry to slightly off-dry, and have a medium-to-long finish. It often has more alcohol than other varietals.

White wines

Common white varietals include: chardonnay, pinot grigio/gris, prosecco, Riesling, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, and sparkling wines.

Albariño

A tart fruity Spanish wine that pairs especially well with seafood.

Chardonnay

Fruity-style chardonnays have apple, pear, citrus, and tropical-fruit flavors; buttery/woody chards emphasize butter or butterscotch flavors and wood/vanillin notes.

Pinot grigio/gris

Pinot grigios tend to be fairly simple white wines, light-bodied and dry. Excellent bottles have an intense yet balanced mix of tropical fruit, citrus, and Juicy Fruit gum flavors (no kidding; all are characteristic of pinot grigio), punctuated by a crisp acidity.

Prosecco

This Italian sparkling wine is simpler, less austere, and a more relaxed experience than Champagne. It has softer bubbles than Champagne, and is generally fruitier. Like Champagne, it usually lacks a vintage year, because it may be a blend of wines from more than one harvest.

Riesling

If you think wine must be dry to be sophisticated, try a good bottle of riesling. Rieslings can vary in the degree of sweetness, which makes them compatible with a wide range of food. Many of the better Rieslings we tested cost about $10.

Sauvignon blanc

This white wine is on the tart, acidic side. It's generally dry and has herbal flavors and notes of tropical and citrus fruits such as banana, passion fruit, grapefruit, pineapple, and mango. Many of the sauvignon blancs in our tests were from New Zealand, demonstrating how a "New World" country can take a varietal that Europeans once dominated and also produce pleasing wines and often at prices below $20.

Sparkling wines

In our tests, some expensive, big-name Champagnes were bested by sparkling wines that cost as little as $10. Some top sparkling wines in our tests were produced in California. Since many Champagnes and sparkling wines traditionally lack a vintage year listed on their labels, it's difficult to know how long they've been sitting on a shelf. Our advice: Buy from a high-volume store with quick turnover to increase your chances of getting a fresh bottle.

Torrontés

Associated with Argentina, it is recognized for its fruity and floral characteristics, but is dry. It pairs well with smoked meats, spicy Thai or other Asian foods and seafood dishes.

Other wines

Wines that don't fall neatly into either the red or white categories include rosé (white zinfandel is included in this category).

Rosé

Made from red grapes, this wine has minimal contact with the grape's skin, so it's lighter in color than reds. Some bottles may have a touch of sweetness and nice fruit flavors that stand up to savory or spicy foods. Others may be drier and leaner, with a prominent acidity that would pair well with sushi, grilled, stewed, or smoked seafood, or barbecued meats. It's best served well chilled.

White zinfandel

A rosé wine made from red Zinfandel grapes and known as pink rosé or blush, this varietal is usually known for being simple, sweet, soft, and low in alcohol. It pairs well with lighter foods such as a fruit salad.

Regions

The world's wine regions are favorite vacation destinations, as any visitor to California's Napa and Sonoma valleys will attest. But you can go around the wine world by just going around the corner to your local wine store. Here are the top wine-producing regions.

Argentina

Argentina's wines are being discovered by the United States. Most Argentine wines come from the country's Mendoza region, in the West. Like Chile, Argentina produces a great deal of wine in the biggest selling varietals--chardonnay and cabernet. But even more than Chile, Argentina is increasingly producing less-familiar varietals that are distinctive to the country, or at least flourish there. The best example is malbec (see Red wines), but there's also torrontés (see white wines) and bonarda (another red).

Australia

Australia is the biggest force in New World wines. It has a reputation for value, so it's quite heavily represented in our Ratings. Like other New World producers, Australia is furnishing more higher-end wines to the U.S. market. Specialties include shiraz and chardonnay, which are widely grown, and merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, and others. The giant Australian producer Yellow Tail produces a dazzling range of varietals, many of which have done well in our tests.

California

California has growing competition for American wine palates, but the Golden State is still the single greatest source of the nation's wine. California's signature grapes are the most popular white and red varietals in the U.S.--namely, chardonnay (sometimes in the more woody and buttery style for the varietal) and merlot (typically in a big and bold style). Some California chardonnays, especially, fare well in our recommendations. But California bottles show up in virtually all of our tests, including those for sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, merlot, and pinot noir.

Chile

Chile is the biggest exporter of wine to the U.S. among South American countries. While most Chilean imports cost $10 or less per bottle, more premium Chilean wines are emerging, with reserve bottles from the big vineyards such as Concha y Toro. Dominant varietals here include cabernet and chardonnay, though Chile also has a reputation for some fine sauvignon blancs. In addition, more of the country's distinctive varietals are coming in to the U.S., notably carménère.

France

France is perhaps the most famous wine country in history and the role model for many of the New World's wines. As such, French wines continue to command some of the highest prices in the world. French wines, such as those from Bordeaux, tend toward blends more than wines from some other regions and are therefore hard to compare side-by-side with varietal wines.

It's more difficult to identify the varietals in French wines, which tend to be named for their region, rather than for the grape.

Italy

Italy boasts a dazzling array of native wine varietals, more of which are making their way to wine stores in the U.S. Most of the Italian wines we've tested have been in two such varietals, pinot grigio and prosecco. Italy's pinot grigios tend to be dry, light, and tart. Prosecco is a sparkling wine that's simpler and less austere than most sparkling wines, with softer bubbles and generally more fruitiness.

New Zealand

New Zealand, which has emerged more recently than Australia, has a reputation built mostly on its sauvignon blanc (especially from the country's Marlborough area), which has dominated our recent Ratings of that varietal. Yet New Zealand is also growing other wines, especially pinot noir in the country's cooler regions, the best of which are beginning to gain some acclaim, but not on the same level as its sauvignon blancs.

Spain

Spanish wines are among the best values in wine today, even though Spain's greatest wines can cost hundreds of dollars. Spain produces a host of wines that offer high quality, often at very reasonable prices. But the country is less represented in our Ratings than most New World countries because Spain's varietals tend to be less well known in the U.S.--there's very little Spanish chardonnay, cabernet, or sauvignon blanc, for example. Instead, Spain's wines tens to emphasize the country's traditional varietals, including tempranillo and garnacha (grenache) in reds, and whites that include albariño and verdejo.

Washington State

The State of Washington is a relatively new wine-growing area that provides many wines that offer decent (or better) quality at a reasonable price. Offerings from Columbia Crest and Hogue, two major producers, have often shown up in our recommendations in varietals that include chardonnay, riesling, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon.

Wine lingo

Wine terms can be so unusual that they encourage parody. "An angular yet modest little wine, with a pomegranate nose," you might opine, lifting your eyes as you swirl a glass. But some terms--even "cat pee"--actually mean something, so it can be useful to make friends with the lingo.

Acidic

Tartaric acid is a natural component in wines, and is a major component of a wine's tartness. A pleasantly tart wine can be referred to as crisp. Especially tart wines are often called acidic.

Aroma

Usually used to designate the fruit (i.e., grape) odors of young wines, and/or varietal characteristics, that decline over time as bottle bouquet develops.

Astringent

Mouth-drying or puckering. Astringency usually comes from tannin, a substance in the grape skins, stems, and seeds that make red wine and in the oak barrels that store wine. The grape skins, stems, and seeds level also determines a wine's color. Over time, tannins become "softer"--less astringent.

Balanced

When all the perceived components (acid, alcohol, fruit, and tannins) in a wine complement each other and no one component sticks out and dominates. The perfect balance depends on the specific type and style. A complex wine has lots of intermingled aromas and flavors.

Body

The "weight" of wine on the palate, this term is mainly related to alcohol. It contributes to mouth feel, that is, the thick or thin consistency of the liquid.

Bouquet

Describes odors acquired through fermentation and aging, while nose covers everything you smell in a wine.

Cat pee

This term--like wet dog, leather, soy sauce, tobacco, and Juicy Fruit gum--is a legitimate, and often desirable, description. It's in the same family of aromatics that smell like grapefruit and pineapple and can add complexity to the wine.

Dry

A perceived absence of sweetness.

Off-dry

Means the wine is very slightly sweet.

Estate bottled

The winery either grew the grapes or controlled the vineyard's product. While the term has a legal meaning on a wine label, our experts say that this overused term is mostly marketing hype.

Finish

The lingering impression of the flavors, aromas, and mouth feel after you swallow.

Palate

The properties you perceive once the wine is in your mouth.

Reserve

A term used to imply the special qualities of a wine that has received additional aging at the winery, in the bottle, or both. In countries such as Italy and Spain, the term is regulated with specific designations requiring a certain length of aging. Wherever the term is not regulated, as is the case in the U.S., it might be nothing more than a meaningless marketing tool.

Structure

The degree to which the wine's components--alcohol, acids, tannin, and sugars--complement one another to create a pleasing feel in your mouth. Good structure can help wine to age well.

Stylish

Marketing jargon.

Varietal

A wine named for the principal variety of grape--cabernet sauvignon, for example--used to make it.

Which glass to use? Read our myths and facts about wine.

Shopping tips

A maxim of our wine advice: Don't automatically assume that a higher price means higher quality. In our tests, some higher-scoring wines have been among the least expensive. Finding an excellent wine that's also affordable--say, under $20--is difficult, but not impossible. In past tests, we've identified very good wines that cost as little as $3 per bottle.

Wines in the price range of those we test aim for, and often achieve, consistent quality from one vintage to another. If a wine we've rated highly isn't available in the vintage we tested, try the newer one. But even mass produced wines may falter from one year to the next. Taste the new wine before you order a case of it based on enthusiasm for an older vintage.

Where to find wine deals online

If you're looking for a case of that wonderful gewürztraminer you tried in Alsace last year or for a fabulous but affordable pinot noir, the Web may be your best bet.

There are not only wine websites but wine search engines where you can compare prices, get recommendations, and track down hard-to-find bottles. Just one warning: Your ability to buy wine online from out-of-state retailers might depend on where you live. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in May 2005 that states must treat sales from in-state and out-of-state wineries the same, leading some states to liberalize their wine-shipment laws and others to consider banning sales. Wine sites will tell you if you can place orders. Or visit www.wineinstitute.org for a brief rundown of state laws.

Here are some tips to help you get the bottles you want at the best price.

Do a Web search

If you're a novice, check out www.winezap.com, where you can enter a type and price range and get a wine list. For each label, the site displays food pairings, reviews, and vendors. It also shows the best prices, including shipping and tax. If you already know which wine you want, enter the name at www.wine-searcher.com, which lists wines by price and vendor. The site culls its information from more than 9,000 price lists of wine stores, wineries, and wine auctions. You can also do a Google search for a wine you like to see who sells it, or go straight to the winery's Web site. Consumers will almost always find a larger selection of wine at a winery's Web site, and online-only deals that offer deeper discounts than online retail stores.

Watch for shipping costs

Shipping costs range from free, at www.mywinesdirect.com, to a flat $1.95 a bottle at www.wineexpress.com, to more than $8 per bottle at other sites. Costs may vary widely, depending on where you live and the shop from which you're buying.

Order by the case

By ordering in bulk, you'll not only get a break on shipping costs, you might also score a discount on the wine. Retailers and wineries may offer 10 percent or more off per case.

Check for sales and coupons

We searched "wine" at www.wow-coupons.com and found a variety of short-term discounts offered at www.mywinesdirect.com, www.wine.com, and www.winelegacy.com. Typing in "coupons on wine" at Google.com led us to sites such as www.couponcabin.com, which had coupons for use on www.wine.com.

Pick up the phone

Though telephone sales typically make up a very small part of a winery's business, it is a common way for wineries to sell wine. Besides getting quick information on available wines, prices, and whether shipping is available to your address, you might gain another advantage by calling. Say you've found a great deal offered by retailer A on a wine from winery B. Winery B might have other wines you want, but less competitive prices. With a phone call, you might find that Winery B will match the best price.

Serving and storage

Wine is more enjoyable when served at a temperature that best brings out its flavors, aromas, and structure (that's wine-speak for how it feels on your tongue).

People tend to serve red wines at room temperature, which is generally too warm (especially in summer). And they often serve white wines right out of the refrigerator, a temperature too cold to enjoy any white at its best--with the exception of some sparkling wines.

Optimal wine temperatures vary by type and characteristics. For example, a wine's weight (or "body") matters when it comes to serving temperature. You should serve lighter red and white wines, such as pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, at lower temperatures than you would heavier red and white varietals such as cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay.

See below for recommended serving temperatures for lighter and heavier red and white wines--and the time required in the refrigerator, freezer, or ice bucket to reach them. Temperatures and times are based on a typical refrigerator temperature of 37 degrees F in the main compartment and zero degrees F in the freezer, with original storage at room temperature (about 65 to 70 degrees F). If the wine was cooler--stored in a temperature-controlled wine cellar, perhaps--you can trim times by about 20 percent for every five degrees. The chart also includes adjustments for warmer room temperatures or seasons.

These temperatures and times are general guides only. They might seem unusual at first, but you'll probably notice a wider range of flavors and other components in your wine, especially bottles of better quality, if you follow them.

As for storage, a trend is now to store wine in a temperature-controlled cellar or custom refrigerator. But unless you're collecting very expensive wines, any spot in the house that is out of direct sunlight, remains cool (less than 70 degrees F) at all times, and isn't subject to vibration will hold wine safely for a year or two. Most basements fit the bill. Store bottles on their side to keep the cork moist. Screw-cap bottles can be stored upright.

Recommended serving temperatures

(Temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit)

Heavier red wines (cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, shiraz/syrah)

Recommended temperature range: Low 60s

*Approximate chilling times for wine at 70°: 40 min. (refrigerator), 5 min. (freezer), and 2 min. (ice and water)

*For wine that's at 80 °F, add 30 min. in the refrigerator, 5 min. in the freezer, and 2 min. in ice and water.

Heavier white wines (chardonnay)

Recommended temperature range: mid-50s

*Approximate chilling times for wine at 70°: 2 hr. (refrigerator), 15 min. (freezer), and 5 min. (ice and water)

Lighter red wines (pinot noir, Beaujolais)

Recommended temperature range: mid-50s

*Approximate chilling times for wine at 70°: 2 hr. (refrigerator), 15 min. (freezer), and 5 min. (ice and water)

Lighter white wines (Champagne, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc) and rosés

Recommended temperature range: mid-40s

*Approximate chilling times for wine at 70°: 2¾ hr. (refrigerator), 20 min. (freezer), and 10 min. (ice and water)

Medium red wines (merlot, Cotes du Rhone)

Recommended temperature range: upper 50s

*Approximate chilling times for wine at 70°: 1.5 hr. (refrigerator), 10 min. (freezer), and 5 min. (ice and water)

Pairing with food

There are a number of myths about which wine goes with what food. Here is some pairing advice for food and wine from our experts,

Cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel

These full-bodied reds generally complement rich dishes. Classic pairings for cabernet include braised, roasted, or grilled lamb or roast beef, Zinfandels pair with foods similar to those served with cabernet. You can also pair zins with creamy pasta sauces, barbecue, and even pizza.

Chardonnay

Richer chardonnays with heavier doses of oakiness pair well with poultry in cream or butter sauces, dishes with herbs (oregano, mustard, cloves, ginger, and sage), lobster in butter, other shellfish, and seafood platters and stews. Simple, tart, fruity chardonnays complement finger foods, sushi, raw bar, or plain grilled chicken or fish.

Chenin blanc

Dry style chenin blancs pair well with Asian food and herbed or grilled fish or chicken. Softer, off-dry-style chenin blancs go with spicier Asian dishes and barbecued food.

Malbec

This simple, fruity wine can be paired with casual snack foods such as pizza and burgers, but more complex varieties do best with richer foods such as beef (steak, barbecue, stews) or mushroom risotto.

Merlot and red-wine blends

Fairly rich wines, these pair well with broiled, roasted or grilled meat and chicken; meaty, firm, hearty fish such as Ahi tuna; savory side dishes such as winter squash, yams, and hearty portabella mushrooms; nuts, rich sauces with herbs (garlic, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon); aromatic vegetables such as fennel and onion; and rich foods such as lasagna and cheese.

Pinot grigio/pinot gris

Those of the drier, lighter-bodied Old-World style pair well with lighter dishes: less-seasoned and less-sauced seafood, and shellfish. New World-style wines can take on richer and heavier fare, such as seafood with butter sauce; salmon; veal dishes with light sauces; egg rolls and spring rolls; citrus-accented foods, sauces and seasonings including garlic, onion, mustard, and vinegar; sour-cream-and-yogurt-based foods; salads with savory elements such as bacon; and pasta with cream, butter, or pesto.

Pinot noir

This lighter red especially complements roast beef, broiled, roasted or grilled meat, chicken, oily or fatty fish such as salmon, and savory, rich, herbed foods.

Prosecco

Prosecco can be off-dry and fruity. It pairs well with many foods, including finger foods and sushi.

Riesling

With their combination of fruit notes and pleasing acidity, rieslings can go well with spicy Asian dishes, roast chicken or pork, grilled sausages and seafood, and fruit and cheese plates. They're also fine choices as an aperitif.

Rosé

This pink wine might have a touch of sweetness and fruit flavor that stands up to savory or spicy foods. Or it might be drier and leaner, with an acidity that would pair well with sushi, grilled, stewed, or smoked seafood, or barbecued meats. It's best served chilled.

Sauvignon blanc

This white wine pairs well with poultry dishes, including roasted chicken and turkey with herbs, pasta in cream sauce, baked fish, and grilled shrimp, raw bar, and steamed clams and mussels. It also works well with spicy Asian food and Spanish tapas, or as an aperitif.

Sparkling wines

These pair well with hors d'oeuvres, soup and salad, mild cheeses, and light desserts. They can also serve as an aperitif or a counterpoint to a heavier main course of fish or fowl. Fruity wines would complement spicy Asian food.

Torrontés

It pairs well with smoked meats, spicy Thai, or other Asian foods, and seafood dishes.

Zinfandel

This wine pairs with foods similar to those served with cabernet, and with creamy pasta sauces, barbecue, and pizza.

A myriad of websites now offer food-pairing advice, including www.winewebcentral.com/winepairing/, which has a well-designed interactive tool that suggests good, better, and best choices according to the food and its sauce or preparation. (But where the site recommends simple, fairly sweet white zinfandel, we'd instead suggest the off-dry, and more interesting, chenin blanc.)

For more details on ideal wine-serving temperatures, see How to serve wine.

Myths vs. reality

Wine has a rich mythology, including how it should be chosen, stored, and served. Much of that information is limited or downright wrong. Here's a rundown.

Myth: Wine improves with age.
Reality: Only certain wines may benefit from a few years of aging.

Wines that have a good balance of acidity, a lot of tannins, and intense fruit flavor may well improve with age. Candidates include some red wines (including most of the better cabernet sauvignons we've tested) and some heartier white wines, such as certain Burgundies and chardonnays. But even a wine with staying power will typically improve for no more than two to three years from the vintage year if it's white, three to five years if it's red; after that, quality might actually decline.

Myth: White wines go best only with fish and fowl; reds with meat and spicier fare.
Reality: A wine's color isn't always the best guide to the foods it will complement.

It's a rule of thumb, but experiment. It's as important to focus on the meal's spices and sauces as on its primary ingredients. As a rule, richer dishes go best with full-bodied wine, including most cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels, and many chardonnays. Good choices for spicy foods include pinot grigios and semi-dry whites such as gewürztraminers and rieslings. Lighter fare generally pairs nicely with lighter wines, including many bottles of the red varietals such as gamay (used to make Beaujolais) and pinot noir, and of white varietals such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, and dry riesling.

Myth: Wine needs special storage facilities.
Reality: Wine can be safely stored in almost any home.

A trend is now to store wine in a temperature-controlled cellar or custom refrigerator. But unless you're collecting very expensive wines, any spot in the house that is out of direct sunlight, remains cool (less than 70 degrees F) at all times without temperature fluctuations, and isn't subject to vibration will hold wine safely for a year or two. Most basements fit the bill. Store cork-finished bottles on their side. Screw cap bottles may be stored upright.

Myth: White wines should be served well chilled, red wines at room temperature.
Reality: For reds and whites, ideal serving temperature varies by wine type.

To get maximum flavor from the bottle, rich white wines, including most chardonnays, should be served cool, not chilled (limit them to about an hour in the refrigerator). Only lighter whites, including most sauvignon blancs, should be well chilled (about two hours in the fridge--longer and they might become too cold). Lighter reds, such as pinot noirs, should be served cool. Only "big" reds--such as most cabernets and zinfandels--are best served at about 60 to 65 degrees F. For more see Serving and storing wine.

Myth: Wine should be opened before serving to allow time for breathing.
Reality: Not all wines improve when exposed to air--and wine in a bottle with an opening the size of a dime rarely improves.

Opening a bottle a few minutes early does no harm, and certain wines will improve somewhat after they're exposed to air. But merely uncorking a bottle and letting it sit exposes too little of the wine to make a difference. The best way to fully enjoy a wine before you drink it is to swirl it around in your glass and sniff.

Myth: Each wine varietal demands its own glass shape.
Reality: One glass for reds and one for whites will suffice.

Wine snobbery now urges a different glass for almost every varietal. Two types will do: A set of wide, 12-to-16-ounce glasses for reds, and more slender, 8-to-12-ounce glasses for whites.

   

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