A Simple Guide To Buying Wine

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Wine is more popular in America than ever, so much so that, if recent trends continue, the United States will be the world's biggest wine-consuming nation by 2010.

So, what are the basics you need to know about wine to make sure you end up with a good bottle, for a decent price, and enjoy it to the max?

Food & Wine magazine Deputy Wine Editor Ray Isle gave an overview of all things fine in wine, on The Saturday Early Show.

Red or white?

There's no rule; it's all personal preference. Studies say red is healthier; it has a high anti-oxidant level. But many experts would say the difference is negligible.

Rose (pink) is actually red wine, when winemakers don't leave the grape skins in the process long.

Learn your grapes

Wine varieties are actually types of grapes.

The most popular white wines are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and reisling.

Chardonnay is a full-bodied white (think of "body" as you would with whole, two-percent and skim milk), with classic flavors being apple and pear-like, maybe some lemon. Good one: 2007 Foxglove Chardonnay, $15.

Sauvignon Blanc is much more citrus-y than Chardonnay. Grapefruit flavors. Also, it usually has an herbal note - anywhere from cut grass to green peppers. 2007 Brander Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $15.

Riesling is easily the hottest white grape at the moment. Most people think of it as being sweet, but the hot trend right now is DRY rieslings - really zesty, with flavors like green apple. People also say it's minerally, like licking a stone - in a good way! Dry Rieslings are great seafood wines. 2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, $12

The most popular red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.

Cabernet is like the king. It's the most powerful guy, both in terms of body and flavor, and in terms of the market. Think black currants, blackberries, firm tannins. Tannins comes from the skins of grapes; they dry out your mouth. 2005 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon, $15.

The movie "Sideways" basically took Merlot out into a back alley and beat the tar out of it. Everyone hates Merlot these days! But really, it's a wonderful grape. It's sexier than Cabernet - more fleshy, softer, with fruit flavor that recalls black cherries or ripe black plums. 2005 Raymond R Collection Merlot, $15

Pinot Noir is very cool right now. It's lighter than either Cab or Merlot; it's more like red cherries. Less tannins. More acidity. It's a red wine that actually goes really well with fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon. This is from Oregon, which is a great Pinot region. Pinot is also great with mushrooms. 2006 A to Z Wine Works Oregon, $18

Don't be fooled by places like France, where they name the wines after the regions. Just ask which grapes they're using!!

It's all about experimentation

Write down the names of wines you like WHEN YOU TASTE THEM. Otherwise, you'll forget. Keep a notebook.

Experiment! Don't just drink the same wine over and over. Go to a wine store (not a supermarket) and say, "I want five really good Cabernets under $20 each." Get a variety. Try the different grapes and start to learn which kinds you like. Then start to try different regions.

How much should you spend?

Price isn't always an indicator of a good bottle of wine. You can find bottles for $8 and for $100, so I encourage you to avoid buying expensive just because you think that means you're getting quality.

The average person spends less than $20 for a bottle of wine.

Don't judge a book by its cover: Don't be sold by a label! A cool label doesn't guarantee you a good wine. Critter labels became super popular in recent years because marketers know consumers look at labels.

One of the fastest-growing segments of the wine world is what's called "super-premium" boxed wines. They may seem expensive for boxed wine - say, $25 for 3 liters - but that's four bottles' worth of wine, and it's MUCH higher quality than the horrible stuff you used to see in boxes. 2006 Black Box Central Coast Shiraz ($25/3 liters) If you're looking for a great wine for tailgating, this one's perfect, and even brings about the idea of a keg!

Does the Year Matter?

The year matters some, but the producer (or wine company) matters more. Good producers still make good wine in bad years. Remember, too, that approximately 90 percent of wine is meant to be consumed within a year of purchase, so you often don't need to decant - it's perfect as is.

Wine-meal pairing

There are no hard and fast rules except - the old rules don't apply.

Break the no-red-wine-with-fish rule: Pinot Noir, like the A to Z from Oregon, goes great with salmon, for instance. And a big white wine, like the 2006 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay ($16), can go great with lighter meats like pork, for instance.

Pair by weight, meaning, pair rich, full-bodied wines with richer foods, and light, crisp wines with lighter, more delicate foods. Chicken's a case in point. A sautéed, skinless chicken breast with steamed vegetables would be great with a really light red like the A to Z Pinot we tasted. But chicken thighs cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce would be way too rich for that wine; it'd go better with something like the merlot from earlier, which is really intense and juicy.

Ray's Top Picks

2007 Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc ($12)
2007 Calera Central Coast Chardonnay ($16)
2007 Tapeña Rosé ($10)
2005 Jacob's Creek Reserve Pinot Noir ($13)
2007 Doña Paula Los Cardos Cabernet Sauvignon ($9)
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