Gamay Beaujolais or Petit Syrah? California Viognier or Alsace Riesling? Don't panic.
You could fall back on that tired rule--white wine goes with fish and fowl-a Chardonnay perhaps. Beef and game gets something red; Cabernet or Merlot are safe bets. But why not be a little adventurous, tread in the waters of unfamiliar varietals?
Following are a few ideas to help expand your wine horizons.
Syrah (SIR-AH) is the most widely planted red grape in Australia, where it's called Shiraz. Known for its spicy, peppery flavors with hints of blackberry and plum, it goes very well with hearty foods, particularly Indian and Mexican.
Sangiovese (SAN-GEE-OH-VAYZE) is the primary grape of Tuscan Chianti, and gaining popularity in California. A robust wine with intense earthy flavors, it has hints of plum and cherry. Try it with meats, veal or mushroom dishes.
Rioja (REE-OH-HA) is a region in Spain, as well as a style of wine that comes in red, white and rosé. Seven types of grapes are used to make Rioja including Tempranillo, which accounts for the bold, fresh flavor of the red. Pair it with a juicy steak.
Riesling (REEZ-LING) is a sweet, fruity yet complex white wine. German Rieslings are often tart and "grapefruity,' while California Rieslings tend to be drier with a "melony' taste. Try it with seafood, Asian and Indian cuisine, and dessert.
Viognier (VEE-OH-NYAY) grapes produce medium-bodied wines that don't need much aging and are noted for apple, apricot, citrus and peach flavors. More complex than Chardonnay, it's an excellent complement to shellfish, seafood and poultry.
Gewurztraminer (GA-VERTZ-TRA-MEENER) is spicy and piquant with a fragrant, flowery nose that is reflected in its flavor. The Gewurtz grape grows in cooler climates, and the wine pairs well with Chinese and Thai dishes, as well as dessert.
You chose a wine, the sommelier brings it to the table, pours a bit in your glass and waits for your approval. First rule: No matter what you may have been told--don't touch the cork unless it looks like the wine has bled on it. Pick up the glass and take a good sniff--can you distinguish any aromas? Fruit, vanilla, tobacco? Now taste.
A wise man taught me a great technique for tasting: Sip a very small amount of wine--just a few drops. Hold it beneath your tongue for an eight count. Then slowly draw it back along the sides of your tongue and swallow. It's amazing how many subtleties you can pick up this way.
Success! You paired a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with a goat cheese and raddichio salad, and hearty '92 Zinfandel with perfectly rare filet mignon. And you have a second date. You decide to continue your wine explorations next weekend at one of the city's bars devoted to this passion. The following are a few places to get you started-- each offer "flights" that allow you to sample small tastes of different wines selected by the house for one price. Salud!
London Wine Bar
415 Sansome St.
Tucked in a corner of the Financial District, the country's oldest wine bar has a Barbary Coast feel, with big wooden booths and a knowledgeable, down-to-earth staff. Fifty or more wines, (predominately Californian with many boutique labels), are available by the glass and flights change weekly. The wine list achieves a good balance of price, variety and style. Light lunch selections and dinner appetizers available.
Hayes & Vine
377 Hayes St.
Hip and modern, with blonde wood accents and Warhol prints on the walls, this Hayes Valley locale offers vintages from all over the world. Red and white flights change weekly. Nibbles paired with wine include caviar, cheese, olives, smoked fish and antipasto.
101 Cyril Magnin
This sultry, elegant Union Square lounge serves exclusively California wines - 350 vintages worth. Seven flights are offered daily including one devoted solely to Zinfandel and another to Chardonnay. Other flights mix it up a bit, one showcasing "big reds."
Café Niebaum Coppola
916 Kearny St.
Located beneath his film production offices, in the landmark verdigris flatiron on Columbus, Francis Ford Coppola's intimate café/wine bar/specialty gift shop offers relaxed wine tasting and prime people watching under Parisian awnings. A reasonably priced flight includes a souvenir logo glass. The Coppola-centric wine list features some other California vintages.
The Bubble Lounge
714 Montgomery St.
Swathed in velvet, with plush couches and exposed brick, this sexy, dimly-lit room offers champagne and sparkling wines served by the glass or bottle. Enjoy live music and sensuous appetizers like oysters, sushi and caviar with a flute of well-chilled bubbly.
It helps to get some of the lingo down to help describe what you're tasting, and educate your palate. Some common wine tasting terms:
Acid/Acidity: A sharp or tart taste.
Aroma: Refers to the smell of the wine, also called "nose" or "bouquet."
Balance: Denotes harmony of wine elements, (acid balances sweetness;
fruit balances against oak and tannin content).
Buttery: A feature often associated with Chardonnay. Richness, creaminess.
Chewy: High tannic content, big body, dense flavor.
Corked: Unpleasant taste or smell due to chemical changes in wine.
Dry: Little or no sweetness, very little residual sugar.
Finish: Aftertaste left in the mouth after swallowing. (Harsh, soft, lingering, smooth, etc.).
Full-bodied: Fills the mouth, weighty on the tongue.
Grassy: Herbaceous, slight vegetal undertone, associated with Sauvignon Blanc.
Hard: Refers to high acidity or tannin levels.
Jammy: Intense berrylike flavors found in reds, especially Zinfandel.
Oaky: Flavor and aroma of oak barrels in which wine was aged.
Tannic: Astringency that causes the mouth to pucker.