More From the Mailbox

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; Page F05

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.

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