How to choose and pair wine

Oct 12, 2008 at 2:15 p.m. ET

Choosing a wine doesn't have to be difficult or stressful. Understanding a little about winemaking can help your decision-making easier.

Woman and WineWhat's in a name?

Wines in the United States are generally named for the grape varietal first, such as Chardonnay, Merlot or Zinfandel, followed by the region grown, such as Sonoma Valley, California.

For most European wines, the opposite is true. The most famous place-name wine is Champagne, named for the region in France where the grapes are grown. The differences in naming are partly due to the shear number of grape varieties grown in Europe. Italy alone is said to have 2,000 varieties growing in her fields.

A Rosé by any other name...

Red wines begin with dark-skinned grapes. The skins are left on during fermentation and the tannins and pigments, called anthocyanins, found in the skins create the color. The majority of red wines, such as Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, are considered heavy and complex. Some, Merlot and Pinot Noir, are lighter by comparison.

White wines are made with wide ranges of grapes: yellow and green-skinned varieties are most common, but even dark-skinned grapes can produce white wine if the skins are removed early enough. Most white wines, such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris, are best when enjoyed young. White wines are characteristically light.

Rosé wines are commonly mistaken for a blend of red and white wines. This may be true in less-expensive, mass-produced wines called Blush. Higher quality wines, White Zinfandel and Grenache, are made by leaving the skins of dark-skinned grapes on long enough to impart a slight color to the wine. Rosé wines are similar to white wines in that they are fruity and best enjoyed while young. Sparkling wines, such as Champagne, start out as regular wines. They go through a second fermentation to give them effervescence. Champagne, Cava, Crémant, and Sparkling Brut are all examples of sparkling wine. Rosé Champagne is made by adding a little red wine to the white wine prior to the second fermentation. Cheap sparkling wines don't go through the second fermentation, but instead are injected with carbon dioxide, much like soda.

Dessert wines, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Eiswein, are also known as table wines or fortified wines. The sugar content is generally high among these wines, hence the moniker "dessert wine." While dessert wines are customarily sweet, some are not. It is also true that dessert wines need not follow the main course.

Fruit wines, apple, peach and raspberry, are made from ripe fruit either in combination with grapes or alone. Any wine that contains fruit other than grapes must carry the label "fruit wine."

Specialty wines

Agricultural wine are made with agricultural products other than fruits or grains. Honey, dried fruit, herbs and flowers, like dandelions, have all been made into wines.

Kosher wines must follow strict rabbinical production techniques. Another stipulation is that they contain no chemical additives like gelatin, lactose, glycerin, corn products or non-wine yeast. Kosher wines are made by Sabbath-observing Jews under strict rabbinical supervision.

Organic wines are made with grapes that are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Organic regulations vary from state to state and country to country.

Nonalcoholic wines begin life as traditional wines, but go through an additional process to remove almost all of the alcohol. To be labeled nonalcoholic, a wine in the United States must contain less than one-half of one percent alcohol by volume.

"Choosing the perfect wine Red wine with meat, white wine with seafood and poultry... "

This saying is basic and, in most instances, it works. There are other, more subtle determining factors involved in selecting wines. But here are a few basic hints.

First and foremost, personal taste pre-empts all rules. If you do, or don't for that matter, like a certain wine with a certain dish, that is just fine. Don't keep drinking a wine you don't like simply because someone told you to. Decide for yourself what you do and don't like. You don't always have to follow the rules.

The reason red wine with red meat usually works is that you don't want either wine or food to overpower the other. And since most red wines are heavy and hearty, like a California Syrah, it makes sense they should accompany a hearty meal. But, if you have a more complex white wine, by all means, serve it with steak.

A nice contrasting combination would be smoky barbecued ribs with a sweet, fruity white wine. Spicy foods, Mexican, Thai, Chinese or Cajun, also pair wonderfully with a sweet wine such as a Riesling or Pinot Noir.

Cream sauces and cheesy dishes call for an equally creamy wine. A good match would be Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Merlot.

And when selecting a dessert wine, be careful not to overload on sweetness. Too much sweetness causes the wine and food to compete. Not all dessert wines need be drunk with dessert. Try pairing goose-liver pate with a Sauternes. Some wines, Eiswein being one, are quite capable of being a dessert on their own.

So, plan a trip to the liquor store. Pick up a bottle for a dinner party or just an evening at home. Let these tips help you find the perfect choice.

Online information on wine selection has a great section, Oxford Online, which is an online version of the Oxford Companion to Wine by Janice Robinson. In this section, you can find detailed information about winemaking, selecting the right wine and much more. contains a Library with a lot of information, as well. In addition to wine basics, Wine Spectator also has an archive of articles related to wine.