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Murray: A little research goes a long way

POSTED: November 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

There are two places where folks who like an occasional glass of wine - but who don't know much about it - feel pangs of anxiety. They feel their throats constrict, their self-esteem begin to melt like Dove bars left in an August car.

Those places: A wine shop (or supermarket for the very sensitive) and a restaurant.

There is no need for such angst. In the restaurant, simply point at something in the middle of the wine list and grunt. The time to worry is when the waiter condescendingly asks you if you really want the fruity, white chenin blanc with that prime rib burrito you ordered.

Oops.

So maybe a little study is in order.

In a restaurant, especially one that offers a varied wine list, ask your table server for a recommendation. If, however, you get the impression that he or she might be able to tell you if the wine is red or white just by looking at it, remember the old rule: White wine with white meats and red wine with red meats.

Except that rule crumbles when, for example, you order shrimp in a spicy red sauce. Then match the wine with the sauce - a nice Italian red such as a Chianti, sangiovese or Valpolicella would go well.

What to do if one of you orders a seafood dish and another orders, say, lamb chops? Champagne is the universal table wine (see the Thanksgiving wines topic below). Whether the real deal from the Champagne region of France or sparkling wine from this country, bubbly goes well with any food. Try it!

If you are unskilled at selecting wine, the best thing to do is cultivate someone in a reputable wine shop - the owner, a wine consultant, etc. You may have to shop around until you feel comfortable. My experience has been that smaller, locally-owned shops offer better and more personal service than big beverage emporia.

When you find someone you trust - and that someone will not immediately recommend the $125 Bordeaux - talk with her or him about your tastes, your preferences and, of course, your budget. Invest some time with this person; the dividends will come in due course.

Your personal wine steward may gently nudge you toward wines a tad more exciting than what you normally sip. Say, for example, you confide that you like chardonnay; don't be surprised if he or she suggests an alternative - a sauvignon blanc or a fine Spanish albarino, for example.

A good relationship, whether a marriage or a wine-shopping experience, must be built on trust. Once you find that person you trust, keep going back.

Supermarket wine shopping is a different critter. Although many stores have folks who are conversant about wine, they frequently are hard to find. I know; I've tried.

So make sure you know as much as you can about the $10 merlot on the shelf before you dump it into your cart.

Primary rule: Read the label. Look at the vintage date, which tells you in what year the grapes were grown and the winemaking process begun. Avoid older whites - more than four years old. Feel safe in buying red wines in supermarkets that are four to five years old - although most supermarket wines are either sold or closed out before that advanced age.

Also look on the front label for where the wine comes from. The narrower the definition of the source of the grapes, the better the quality. If the label says simply "California" or "Oregon" the grapes can come from anywhere in the state. Look for a regional designation: Sonoma County, Central Coast, Napa Valley, Willamette Valley.

Here's your tip for the day: Don't buy the first bottle on the shelf. Reach back and grab one that's been hiding in the semi-dark. Supermarket lights are on virtually 24 hours a day. That first bottle gets all light, all the time.

Thanksgiving wines

Yes, Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so think about laying in a supply of an appropriate vinous beverage or two to gracefully accompany the big bird.

My favorite wine of all with a roast turkey is gewurztraminer; preferably the crisp, steely selections from the Alsace region of France. Yes, America does produce some lovely gewurz (that's wine geek talk), but the best have an Alsatian address.

Gewurztraminer is the name of the grape, and it produces a wine with a lovely spicy fruit nose and flavor that wrap themselves around the turkey, letting the bird show off its best attributes.

Note: Although I am fond of many Fetzer products, I find the Fetzer Gewurztraminer a tad too sweet for use as a table wine. Ditto the Robertson from South Africa. Look for another label.

If red wine is your preference, look for a good pinot noir. I recommend pinot noirs from Oregon (which I visited last month; more later) and the Russian River Valley or Carneros Region of California. Pinot noir is a light red, with sufficient fruit in the mouth to mate nicely with a roast turkey.

There is, however, the aforementioned universal choice; a wine that is wonderful with just about any food. That wine is Champagne or sparkling wine. It can legally be called Champagne only if it is made in that carefully defined region in France. You will find several styles of bubbly, but my favorite has a light tinge of copper or salmon to it - blanc de noirs.

Blanc de noir is made primarily or exclusively from red grapes. If it's Champagne those grapes are pinot noir and pinot meuniere. American sparklers frequently use other grapes. But this kind of bubbly is pretty to look at and lovely to sip.

My choice is from Chandon in Napa Valley. The color enhances a Thanksgiving table, and gives us just one more thing for which to be thankful.

Allow me to share our family greeting for this wonderful holiday ... Happy Bird-Day!

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? E-mail him. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.



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