Choosing a good wine is too often a shot in the dark. Isn't there some easy way of cutting through the morass on restaurant wine lists and in the local wine shop? The answer is an emphatic yes.
In truth, most of what one needs to know about wine shopping can be summarized on a pocket-sized slip of paper. Such a crib sheet is precisely what is provided, suitable for a wallet-sized cutout, at the end of this column.
One caveat. The intent here is surely not to trivialize the art of wine and food pairings. It's merely a confidence builder. Please explore further. Take some risks with food and wine pairings. Surprises often delight the most. But don't be ashamed to be realistic. There is much to be said for a sure thing. Even a merely good match can transform an ordinary meal into something special.
Matching Food and Wine
Let the color of the sauce -- not the color of the meat -- determine the wine. Match red (or dark) sauces with red wines, whether the sauce covers meat, poultry, pasta or fish. White sauces call for white wines. If there is no sauce, then go to the color of the meat, red meat with red wine, white meat or fish with white wine. (I treat veal as a red meat, but it can also be considered white.) Note also that if your taste runs to red wines, they pretty much go with everything except raw shellfish or mussels.
Focus on broad categories and the better names in those categories. Memorizing one or two specific wines is useless. A rule of adult life is that the wine you remember well is never available when you want it. The quality of recent vintages and the trend in the dollar exchange rates will determine the broad categories. Thus, this list turns over every year or so. But right now, here is where to look.
Chilean wines: If there is a cardinal rule for wine lovers on a budget, it is to look to Chile. From pervasive mediocrity a decade ago, Chilean wines have emerged as a low-price leader in almost every major varietal category.
Chilean cabernets are like a cross between a Bordeaux and a California cabernet. At prices as low as $5 or less, Chilean reds can offer complexity of fruit and bouquet, as well as a touch of oak. Look for Cousinao Macul, Santa Rita, Undurraga, Caliterra, Canepa and Saint Morillon. Argentine reds can offer similar value. Humberto Canale, Aberdeen-Angus, Trapiche and Valentin Bianchi are among the best.
Chilean whites have really improved of late. The real steals from Chile are the sauvignon blancs, which marry high fruit levels to zesty varietal crispness. Chardonnay is also quite good. Don't expect a lot of drama from them, but they are clean and do taste like chardonnay. For sauvignon blanc, look for Canepa, Errazuriz Panquehue and Caliterra. The latter also makes a good chardonnay, as does Cousinao Macul.
Red Bordeaux: Bordeaux hasn't had a really poor vintage since 1980, and most vintages have been well above average. As a result, most wine lists and virtually all retail shops are chock full of good vintages. Increasingly, the style of winemaking in the Gironde is changing to emphasize softer wines with round tannins that do not require much aging. Owing to the run of successful vintages, the Bordelaise have become rich, which has permitted them to invest in technology to produce acceptable wines even in poor years. The upshot is that what was once among the riskiest categories of wine for the uninitiated has now become among the safest.
The only cloud over Bordeaux for the coming year is pricing. Many of the elite classified growths are in too great demand and are now over-priced. For value among the elite chateaux, look for Meyney, Le'oville-Barton, Gruaud-Larose, Talbot, Chasse-Spleen, La Lagune, La Dominique, Bon Pasteur and Pavie. Pricing at the petit chateaux level remains realistic. Look for Tayac, Recougne, Pitray, Perenne, Coufran and Greyssac, among others.
California sparkling wine: With recent and expected price inflation, few restaurants will be able to offer the increasingly popular "wine by the glass" of French Champagne for less than $10. Fortunately, California sparkling wine has taken a dramatic leap for the better within the last two years and is now widely available in restaurants and at retail. Unlike Spanish cavas, the better California sparklers are made from true Champagne grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir. Among the best are those with a French connection -- ownership by a major French house that provides expertise and capital needed to hit the heights. Hot brands include Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Mumm "Cuve'e Napa," Shadow Creek and Scharffenberger.
California chardonnay: Though it may seem odd, the best values in chardonnay are no longer at the lower "fighting varietal segment," but in the vast middle to upper-middle range between $8 and $15. Wines in this category are increasingly receiving barrel fermentation, lees (yeasty sediment) contact and barrel or bottle aging, all of which drastically increase complexity. Ironically, white Burgundy, from which these techniques were borrowed, rarely offers these elements in the mid-price category in which the region's stainless steel-fermented Macons dominate. In California chardonnay, look for Ferrari-Carano,William Hill Silver Label, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, Kendall-Jackson, Clos du Bois, Chateau St. Jean, Fetzer Barrel Select, Beringer, Sonoma-Cutrer, Cuvaison, Christophe, Hess Selectand Trefethen. At the budget level, focus on Round Hill, Columbia Crest, Walnut Creek and Sutter Home.
Match wine color to sauce color; if no sauce, to meat color. Reds, if you prefer them, go with anything but raw shellfish.
Premium California: Ferrari-Carano, William Hill Silver Label, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, Kendall-Jackson, Clos du Bois, Chateau St. Jean, Fetzer Barrel Select, Beringer, Sonoma-Cutrer, Cuvaison, Christophe, Hess Select, Trefethen
Budget California: Round Hill, Columbia Crest, Walnut Creek, Sutter Home
Chile: Caliterra, Cousinao Macul
Sauvignon Blanc (white)
Chile: Canepa, Errazuriz Panquehue, Caliterra
Chile: Cousinao Macul, Santa Rita, Undurraga, Caliterra, Canepa, Saint Morillon
Argentina: Humberto Canale, Aberdeen-Angus, Trapiche, Valentin Bianchi
Classified: Meyney, Le'oville-Barton, Gruaud-Larose, Talbot, Chasse-Spleen, La Lagune, La Dominique, Bon Pasteur, Pavie
Petit chateaux: Tayac, Recougne, Pitray, Perenne, Coufran, Greyssac
California Sparkling Wine
Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Mumm "Cuvee Napa," Shadow Creek, Scharffenberger