When you learn the different qualities of varietals, buying wine and pairing it with food is a cinch.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Just as you can imagine the different flavors of steak, chicken,and pork chops without actually eating them, you can learn toimagine the flavors of zinfandel, pinot noir, merlot, and otherwine varietals. Being conscious of the differences makes buyingwine and pairing it with food much simpler.

Pinot noir
Personality: Sensual and understated. Pinot noir is one ofthe most food-friendly red wines, thanks to lots of inherentacidity.
Origin: The Burgundy region of France, though great examplesalso come from California and Oregon
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Rich loamy earth, mushrooms,warm baked cherries; usually medium-­bodied flavor with asmooth, supple texture that's often ­described as silky
Cost: From $20 for a decent American version to more than$100 for a top-quality French pinot
Try it with: Grilled salmon, most anything with mushrooms (Risottowith Mushrooms), roasted chicken, and duck breast

Personality: Rich,dramatic, even a bit wild
Origin: Northern Rhone Valley of France; also made inAustralia (where it's called shiraz) and the United States
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Wild berries, chocolate, blacklicorice, black pepper with hints of meatiness; medium- tofull-­bodied flavor, with a soft, thick mouthfeel. Australianshirazes, in particular, are big, plush examples of the wine world.
Cost: Modest (good shirazes can be had for $15) to $40-plusfor the top French examples
Try it with: Lamb or slow-cooked hearty meaty stews andcasseroles. Pour a glass with LambShanks with Lemon and White Beans.

Personality: Depends on price―inexpensive merlots aresimple, ­basic red wines of little character. But if you spend$25 or more, you'll get a wine as rich and majestic as cabernetsauvignon.
Origin: The Bordeaux region of France; California andWashington State
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Cocoa, red plums, cassis,espresso, cedar, tobacco; medium to full bodied. The top merlotshave a lot of structure.
Cost: From $10 for ­inexpensive Chilean merlot, $20 to$40 for a very good merlot from California, to more than $2,000 abottle for the top Bordeaux-made merlot
Try it with: Meat dishes such as roasted chicken, braisedshort ribs, or steak

Cabernet sauvignon
Personality: The preeminent classic red ­variety,thanks to its complexity, majestic structure, richness, andcapacity to age for decades―the Sean Connery of red wines
Origin: Bordeaux, France, but terrific ­examples arenow produced in virtually ­every great red wine ­regionof the world
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Similar to merlot, only bigger,deeper, more intense and powerful. Watch out, though, for poorlymade, cheap cabernet sauvignon, which can be dank and weedy.
Cost: Moderate ($15) to expensive ($75); plan to spend atleast $25 for a very good bottle.
Try it with: Grilled steak (cabernet and grilled steak areconsidered a classic American pairing) and roast beef

Personality: Thick and jammy, like blackberries simmering
Origin: Croatia, though virtually all of the top zinfandelsare now grown in northern California
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Like a big boysenberry pie with­vanilla ice cream―full bodied, mouth filling, andflannel soft
Cost: $12 to $30
Try it with: Meat loaf, barbecued ribs, burgers,bean-and-vegetable casseroles, or pot roast. Open a bottle with ChipotleBarbecue Burgers with Slaw.

What is a varietal?
A varietal is wine made with a specific variety of grape.Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay are all types of grapes,just as Granny Smith, McIntosh, and Rome are kinds of apples. Thereare approximately 24,000 grape names. But these represent onlyabout 5,000 distinct varieties, since a variety may go by numerousnames depending on where it is grown (syrah/shiraz is oneexample).