Essentials: Wine Guide

With a basic understanding of wine, including where to buy, what to buy and how to pair it with food, you'll never fear the wine aisle again.
Related To:

Where to Buy
Supermarkets -- a totally acceptable (and affordable) option, as long as you don't need much guidance

Wine Stores -- a great place to learn and experiment, since most places have (or should have) a salesperson who knows what's what. Here's what makes a decent wine store:

  • Varied selection (not just big-name Chardonnays and Merlots)

  • Large selection of underrepresented wines (like Argentinean Malbec or Mosel Riesling)

  • Employees who know and have tasted the wines on sale

  • Unique and personalized tasting notes

  • A bully-free and non-judgmental atmosphere ? you should feel comfortable telling them what you want

Basic Categories

Red -- its color comes from the grape skins, which are removed for white wine; examples include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Shiraz, Merlot and Zinfandel

White -- varies in color from light yellow to golden; examples include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling

Rose -- the pink color comes from its limited contact with the grape skins; examples include White Zinfandel and Weissherbst

Sparkling -- natural (or unnatural) carbonation gives it fizz; examples include whites like Champagne and Cremant, and reds like sparkling Shiraz and Brachetto

New World vs. Old World

New World -- produced outside of Europe (e.g. Chile, North America, New Zealand), these wines tend to be fruitier and more imposing with higher alcohol levels and more oak

Old World -- funkier and earthier, with more subtle fruit

Reading the Labels

New World wines are labeled by grape variety, while Old World wines are labeled by region. If you find you like an Old World region, dig deeper to learn more about how the grapes taste per the region. The same goes for New World regions and grapes.

Basic Flavors


  • Fruity

  • Spicy or Herbaceous

  • Buttery

  • Acidic

  • Mellow

  • Sweet

  • Earthy

  • Oaky (i.e., toasty)

Note: About 1 out of 12 wine bottles is "corked" -- that moldy, musty smell caused by a chemical called TCA. If you open wine and it's corked, return it to the store.


The key word here is balance -- within the wine itself and the food you're serving. Some guidelines to think about, though any combination will work:

Steamed halibut -- choose something mellow, herby and acidic, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or a white from the Loire Valley in France.

Spaghetti and meatballs -- this dish needs something big with acidity, herbs and brighter fruit to offset the meat. Here, Chianti classico (from Tuscany) would be perfect, or an old-style Rioja (from Spain).

Indian takeout -- try a slightly sweet, low-alcohol wine, something to relieve the palate from the spices. German, Australian or New York Riesling would work, or California Viognier or Austrian Gewurztraminer.

Enchiladas -- depending on the spice level, either go sweeter or mellow white, dry rose with a little backbone or a spicy red: New World chardonnay, a Spanish or French rose, or South American Malbec.

Seared salmon -- go with an assertive, fruity white or a mellow red: California Chardonnay, whites from the Rhone Valley (in France) or Pinot Noir (called Burgundy if it's from France).

Steak and potatoes -- think big, bold, fruity and jammy: American red Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon, Australian Shiraz or Bordeaux (from France).


Keep wine in a cool, dark place, ideally on its side. If you're saving a case of good wine for a special occasion, invest in a wine refrigerator to keep it at the right temperature.

For unfinished white wine, put the cork back in and keep it in the fridge; it will keep about 4 days--the same goes for red wines, but let them warm up a little on the counter before drinking. Get a clamshell stopper for sparkling wine; it'll stay fizzy for at least a day.

Cooking Rules

1. Use wine you would actually drink, not the bad stuff.

2. If you don't drink wine, buy half-bottles; otherwise a big bottle will go to waste over time -- and that's a real tragedy.

3. "What grows together, goes together" -- choose wine from the region your recipe comes from.

4. Use wine to amplify the flavors in a recipe; like, if you want a sweeter sauce, choose a sweet wine; if you want a jammier-tasting sauce, choose a fuller-bodied wine.

5. Cook wine for a few minutes after adding it to a dish -- otherwise the wine can overpower the other flavors, even though that's not usually a problem.

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