This popular, adaptable white wine grape can be grown in just about every wine-producing country in the world. It is the grape behind the famed dry, white burgundies of France and one of the principal varietals in champagne. Typically, chardonnay is an oaked wine with medium-high acidity and a fuller body. It's flavors and aromas can range from toasty and vanilla (from the oak) to tropical fruits to slightly earthy.
Food Pairing: Fatty fishes (think salmon) and rich cream sauces have always been a classic pairing with chardonnay.
This distinctive white variety is known for making dry, medium-bodied, high-acid wines that have an herbaceous quality and mineral flavors. (That said, some can also be fruity.)
Food Pairing: Everything from the classic oysters on the half-shell to white meats and dishes with acidic, tangy dressings.
This widely popular (especially in the U.S.) and generally inexpensive white wine is primarily produced in northeastern Italy, California, Oregon, and Alsace, France. Italy and California's pinot grigios are typically light, dry, and crisp, whereas the pinot gris from Alsace have more character and body.
Food Pairing: Light pasta and fish dishes are often recommended with pinot grigio.
This famous red wine grape, produced everywhere from Bordeaux and California to South Africa and Australia, generally makes high-tannin, full-bodied wines with depth. The flavor of black currants is commonly associated with the wine, as is a quality of being firm and rich.
Food Pairing: Think steak and red meat.
Less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, this red wine grape produces dark wines that are generally full-bodied, high in alcohol, and with notes of chocolate and plum. The most widely planted grape variety in Bordeaux, it can make wines that range from easy-drinkers to prized bottles worth aging.
Food Pairing: Because of its diversity, there are a lot of options here — everything from grilled meats and blue cheeses to salmon and mushrooms.
This popular Italian red wine is produced in Tuscany, and the best come from the chianti classico region. Characterized as a dry red, the style of the wine varies depending on the grape blend and how it is aged.
Food Pairing: Often described as having notes of cherries and spices, chianti classico is a good match with something like an herb-crusted pork loin.
White zinfandel may be a hugely popular white wine, but the grape it is made from is actually red. Iconic in California winemaking, the grape also produces dark, rich, high-alcohol red wines.
Food Pairing: Red zinfandel pairs well with meat dishes (stews, ribs, leg of lamb), hearty red-sauce pastas, and rich patés and terrines.
Although it is also grown in places like California and Washington, the varietal is most famously produced in France's Rhône Valley and Australia (where it is called syrah and shiraz, respectively). French syrahs are typically full-bodied and powerful, with firm tannins and notes of everything from berries to black pepper and tar. Australia's shiraz, however, is generally more of a medium-bodied bright and fruity wine.
Food Pairing: Syrahs go well with well-spiced red meats.
Easily considered Argentina's signature variety, it is widely produced in the Mendoza region. The lush, fruity red wine is characterized as having good tannins and notes of dark red fruits, and also sometimes tobacco and espresso.
Food Pairing: This bold, structured wine pairs well with foods that have sweet and spicy notes.
Have a sweet tooth of the liquid variety? Most notable are the white sauternes (sew-tairn) from France, port from Portugal, and trockenbeerenauslese (trok-en-beeren-aus-lace-uh) from Germany.
Food Pairing: Try rich, sweet sauternes with ripe fruits or lemon-flavored pastries (though it can also go great with rich foie gras), and port with strong cheeses or dark chocolate.
Rule number one: Not all sparkling wine is champagne (shahm-PAHN-yeh). Nothing against Italy’s popular prosecco (pro-SECK-oh) and Spain’s cava (cah-vah) — or even the many great American sparklers — but unless it’s made in Champagne, France, it can’t be labeled as such.
When it comes to the French bubbly, a lot of confusion can stem from the terms used to define degree of sweetness. Brut (broot) means it’s dry, sec (seck) — though literally "dry" — means it’s a little sweet, demi-sec (duh-mee seck) is fairly sweet, and doux (do) means sweet.
Food Pairing: Bubbly is a classic pre-meal apéritif drink, but Covenant Wines' Jeff Morgan says the most important factor to consider when pairing sparkling wine and food is the presence or lack of acidity. Oysters are a popular match, but also salty or fried snacks (chips, fried chicken!) work well too, as the bubbles can cut through the richness.
Terroir (tear-WAHr): French term to describe the general makeup of a vineyard — from soil and climate to the drainage and topography — that contributes to the character of the wine.
Varietal: Another word for grape variety; as an adjective, meaning made from a single variety.
Vintage: The year the wines grapes were grown and harvested.
Dry: Used to describe wines that are not sweet.
Tannic: Having an astringent character from compounds found in grape skins and/or wooden casks; primarily noticeable in red wines.
Extensive wine lists can be intimidating, there’s no denying, but experienced sommelier Allegra Angelo of Michy in Miami has some advice to offer. For one, know what you like (not-so-oaky whites, bold reds, whatever). Second, and most important, don’t be afraid to ask for help — if there's no sommelier, seek out the restaurant’s "token wine dork" and find out what recommendations he or she may have. Lastly, says Angelo, "Don’t be afraid to experiment."
Don't feel like you have to make a big spectacle of evaluating the first taste of the wine you've ordered. Give the sample a couple quick swirls, get a good whiff, and take your sip (no need to attempt the gargle you saw someone do at a wine tasting once).
Don’t let the fear of being "that annoying, picky customer" stop you from rejecting a wine if you think there’s something wrong with it. You’re paying for a product and you should be getting what you want. That said, there is the matter of accountability on your part — if you’re going to reject a wine for being "bad," be sure of your convictions. It helps to be familiar with the characteristic red flags of "corked" or oxidized wine. Be polite, and have the sever taste the defective glass; any professional worth his or her salt will be honest about admitting a fault in the wine if there is one.
Iconic of Burgundy reds, great pinot noirs can also be found in wine-growing regions like Oregon, California, New Zealand. Lighter than cabernet sauvignon and merlot, pinot noir is generally a medium-acid, medium-tannin wine that has fruity red berry notes and a floral aroma (but can sometimes also have earthy qualities as well).
Food Pairing: A versatile wine for food pairing, try it with natural rinded cow's milk cheeses, mild red meats, as well as grilled, roasted, or sautéed foods (think grilled chicken with sautéed mushrooms).