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More From the Mailbox

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Though summer sipping often calls for lighter-bodied white wines, your most frequently asked questions make it clear that red wines are still on your minds.

My wife has a real hard time finding red wine that meets her taste. Is there a red brand or two that is not bitter or tart but has a semisweet flavor, yet is not a dessert wine? For comparison, she does like white zinfandel. Is this a fair request?

-- Dick Kirsch, Hernando, Fla.

We love it that your wife knows her palate well enough to state what she likes and that you know it well enough to help her out.

Unfortunately for consumers, wine labeling still has a long way to go to become truly user-friendly. We look forward to the day when more labels feature information that provides clues to flavor. Alcohol levels are required by law to be listed on wine labels, providing a useful hint about the wine's relative body. Listing information about acid, oak, sweetness, tannin and other levels could help consumers more easily identify bottles with the characteristics they're seeking.

As a rule of thumb, look for wines made from grapes that tend to produce your desired level of sweetness, from very dry (not at all sweet) to off-dry (noticeably sweet for a non-dessert wine). Your wife might find ones she enjoys most in the middle categories and might wish to avoid the "very dry" category. Some examples:

Very dry: Bourgueil, Chinon.

Dry: Barolo, Brunello, Chianti.

Less dry: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, American pinot noir, Australian shiraz.

Off-dry: Anjou rosé, South African pinotage.

By the way, what some refer to as "sweetness" often is really fruitiness: The fruit-forwardness of a wine gives the impression of sweetness, even though it might contain little to no residual sugar. We really liked the NV Fess Parker Frontier Red Lot No. 81 California Red Wine ($10) that we mentioned July 2; though it is not sweet, its fruitiness is perceived that way by some. And we expect your wife might also enjoy either of our fruit-forward red wine picks this week: the 2005 Irony Monterey Pinot Noir ($16) or the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot ($22). Both are fruity enough to provide a mirage of sweetness on the palate.

By much enjoyable trial and error over a number of years, I have learned a list of "key words" that I look for when making red wine choices, whether describing aroma or taste. If a few of the following words appear in a description, I am usually assured of a very enjoyable bottle of wine: pepper/peppery, hot peppers dipped in chocolate, dark chocolate/mocha/bitter chocolate, earthy, woodsy, asphalt/melted asphalt, dirt, tobacco/tobacco leaves, smoke, leather, licorice, tar/road tar, coffee, espresso, cocoa. Color-wise, wines with those descriptors tend to be almost brownish, at least inky dark. And "lush, chewy finish" or similar phrasing is also typical.

What does that group of adjectives mean about the kinds of wines (e.g., country of origin? varietals?) I should look for without having to read every label/review in the store?

-- Susan Smith-Knoblauch, Great Falls

The bad news is that the only way to know for certain what a wine tastes like is to taste it. The good news is that an increasing number of wine books classify wines by flavor profile or style, which, for those who know the profile of what they like to drink (as you clearly do), is much more useful than traditional books that list wines by geographic origin.

One of the best is "Wine Style: Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine," by Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy (Wiley, 2005). The authors divide wine into a dozen styles, four of which categorize red wines. On the lightest end are "mild-mannered reds," such as inexpensive Bordeaux, followed by "soft, fruity reds," such as Beaujolais. More intense are "fresh, spicy reds," such as Italian Dolcetto, and most intense of all are "powerful reds," such as California cabernet sauvignon.

You'll no doubt find your preferred flavor profile in wines on the more intense end of the spectrum. The Best Cellars retail store chain was a pioneer in organizing wines by style (you'd probably like their "smooth" or "big" red offerings) instead of country of origin, and in the dozen years since its founding, other wine stores have followed suit.

Cabernet sauvignon often has notes of green bell peppers, and you can find black pepper notes in petite sirah, shiraz/syrah and zinfandel. Those tobacco notes you enjoy can often be found in Italian Barbaresco and Barolo. In fact, as a rule of thumb you might find the earthy flavor profile you're seeking more often in Old World wines (those made in France, Italy and other regions with long winemaking traditions) because New World wines (those made in the United States, Australia and other newer players on the scene) tend to have a fruitier profile.

I'm a red-wine drinker. Please suggest reds to drink with spicy foods such as Tex-Mex, Chinese, Cajun, etc.

-- Larry Theriot, Reston

It can be just as helpful to know which red wines to avoid with spicy foods: You'll want to stay away from those that are high in tannin (such as big cabernet sauvignons and tannats) and alcohol, both of which will "fan the flames."

Opt instead for fruitier reds, such as Beaujolais, pinot noir, shiraz/syrah and zinfandel, which will help take the edge off lots of spice. And don't be afraid to chill reds before serving; that will help tame the heat, too.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and the forthcoming "The Flavor Bible," can be reached through their Web site, http://www.becomingachef.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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