NEW YORK (Money magazine) -
Getting your wine act together is a lot easier -- and less pricey -- than it sounds, and can save you that last-minute sprint to the local wine shop (which has just closed for the night, of course).
To get you started, I have assembled a perfect case: 12 different types of wine -- from a smashing Champagne and a medium-bodied red to an after-dinner port -- that every host should have on hand for every occasion (and food). In each category, I make three suggestions in ascending order of quality and price.
Choosing these 36 wines, when thousands from around the world could qualify, wasn't easy. A lot had to do with my favorites in blind tastings. And when I became dizzy doing pirouettes in wine shops, I turned for help to experts like Andrew Brisker, wine director at La Caravelle in New York City. I have also attempted to recommend wines that are readily available (either on the shelf or via special order) through a good local merchant.
You want your bubblies to be special, whatever their price.
Zardetto Prosecco Brut NV, Italy ($9) At this price, you can't not try it. A dry sparkler from Italy that's fragrant, heady and smooth.
1998 Iron Horse Russian Cuvee, California ($28) This is among the finest domestics. In professional wine speak, it would be described as "easy drinking," which in my lexicon means, "Did I really polish off all of that last night?"
Krug Grande Cuvee NV, France ($120) Your first silky, effervescent sip will be an epiphany, erupting with citrus and ripe berries and the characteristically tiny bubbles that help make this world-class Champagne so smooth. (Lesser wines often have large gaseous bubbles that can take your breath away.)
With so many great wines now available from around the world, there's no reason to spend more than $20 on your everyday bottle. Sipping whites (sometimes known as aperitif whites) should be light, lively and uncomplicated. That's it. As such, they complement cocktail-party finger foods, shellfish, poultry and vegetables. And they are among the few wines that enhance Asian food.
2001 Hogue Fume Blanc, Washington ($9) This is my house white lately. With a hint of sourness, it's a winner for all occasions, and I serve it very cold. (About 40 minutes in the fridge does it for most whites, 50 minutes if you like 'em extra chilly.)
2003 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand ($14) New Zealand is now a tsunami of Sauvignon Blancs, and diligently as I've tried, I can't find a bad one. Brancott has hints of citrus and distinctive nuances of tropical fruit.
2001 La Poussie Sancerre, France ($17) One of the best Sancerres -- highly refreshing and as perfectly balanced as the Flying Wallendas.
These are richer and, for the most part, more generously fruity than wines in the previous category. They're substantial enough to hold their own with a wider variety of foods than aperitifs can. Any one of these is suitable as a cocktail-hour sipper, but they really shine with poultry, full-flavored seafood like salmon, pastas with white sauces, and egg-based dishes.
2002 Joseph Phelps Viognier, California ($30) For a change from California Chardonnay, try this fragrant, faintly orange-scented wine made with a grape that is mostly associated with the Rhone valley in France but is now sprouting up all over the state. Drink this one young, no more than three years old, because its fruitiness fades with aging. (With white wines in general, the rule is the younger, the better.)
2001 Woodward Canyon Chardonnay, Washington ($33) For the money, this light and elegant wine from the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest is a gem. It has soft flowery aromas and mild oak essences, and it packs a long, buttery finish.
2001 Jermann Vintage Tunina, Italy ($60) A justifiably famous (and fashionable) white wine from one of Italy's best producers, this bella is a beautiful balance of luscious fruit and enough acid to keep it from being cloying.
Another step up the flavor ladder, these whites enhance all the foods listed in the previous categories and, because they're robust, can take on more assertive fare (but rarely highly seasoned or spicy dishes). They also make fine sipping wines.
2002 Excelsior Chardonnay, South Africa ($8) There's no reason to squander your rands to find a perfectly pleasing Chardonnay.
2000 Heathfield Ridge Chardonnay, Australia ($15) This is a big, mouth-filling food wine with hints of lemon, lime and peach. I've enjoyed it with everything from braised poultry to fresh melons and fruit tarts.
2002 Calera Viognier Mt. Harlan, California ($36) Noticeably richer than the medium-bodied Phelps, with a floral taste that's easy to love.
Red wines for sipping and munching need only be fresh, fruity and generally on the dry side. Choices in this category seem to be growing exponentially as Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa export amazingly good budget-priced wines. Drink these alone or with crudites, sweet seafood like scallops and lobster, or chicken, burgers and sausages (okay, hot dogs too). I like to serve lighter reds cool because it kicks up their fruit flavors -- about 15 minutes in the fridge.
2002 Borsao Campo de Borja, Spain ($7) Run, don't saunter, and buy a case or two alone of this astounding bargain. I was tipped off to this by Ralph Hersom, wine director at Le Cirque 2000 in New York City, who told me it was his table wine at home. Sure enough, it's a real star: deep cherry flavors, a fresh, light body, and a warm, smooth finish.
2002 Georges Duboeuf Chiroubles, France ($11) Duboeuf is the main man in Beaujolais and easy to find everywhere else (you can't miss those colorful flower labels in your wine store). Of all 10 "crus" Beaujolais -- those officially designated as the best -- Chiroubles is the most delicate, silky and, to my taste, utterly delicious.
1999 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge St. Jean, France ($30) Fancy name, singular bargain. This has much of what one expects from a good Burgundy, without overtaxing the credit card: ruby colored, concentrated, yet still light enough to quaff all evening. It's also an outstanding pick with beef, veal and pork.
You'll feel more richness and density when you swish one of these around in your mouth. These reds are well suited for milder meats and poultry, goat cheese, pastas, smoked salmon, cooked salmon, cold meats (no question -- a fun picnic wine).
2001 Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d'Alba Falletto, Italy ($18) Called the Beaujolais of Italy, Dolcettos are simple, ripe and easy drinking. This is a particular favorite, but it's hard to go wrong with these wines. As with Beaujolais, chill them for 15 minutes.
2001 Fairview Solitude Shiraz, South Africa ($30) The Shiraz grape is sort of like a Merlot grape in a feisty mood: plenty of depth and warmth but with a peppery edge and puckering tannic veneer. This particularly appealing South African bottle delivers all that.
2000 Woodward Canyon Charbonneau Red, Washington ($50) This youngster already tastes as if it has aged for five years. It may be hyperbole to call a wine "sensuous," but that's what comes to mind when I drink this. It's pricey, but it packs enough ripe berries to fill a wheelbarrow.
Another step up the vineyard (where the grapes get the most sun). These three straddle the fence between sippers and serious dinner reds, and can get you through almost any situation, from ripped-jeans casual to big-time entertaining. Of all red categories, this is the first you should buy.
2000 Casa Lapostolle Merlot Cuvee Alexandre, Chile ($17) While this is a South American wine, a prominent Bordeaux winemaker created it. Merlot lovers will find it a little more complex than the typically grapey varieties from California -- not a bad thing -- and will delight in the ripe, fresh fruit.
2000 Penfolds Kalimna Shiraz Bin 28, Australia ($22) If you enjoy Australian reds but get confused by all those color-splashed labels -- many sporting marsupial themes -- look for this most respected of Down Under houses. Kalimna entices with bold and intense flavors that just keep coming after you swallow. It's a killer with sharp, blue-veined cheeses.
2001 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, California ($30) Ridge Vineyards is the Armani of Zinfandels: Like a quality suit, you can choose it repeatedly without getting bored. It's a big, concentrated red that could almost be moved to the next category, except for its light and lively finish.
Now we're in the land of the carnivores. Deep, concentrated and tannic-edged, these reds are made for steak.
1999 Marques de Riscal Reserva, Spain ($17) Perhaps the most recognized winery in Spain, Marques de Riscal makes lusty, aggressive reds with just the right amount of tannin to keep them from being overpowering.
2001 E. Guigal Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France ($35) An illustrious Rhone red, it's the vinous equivalent of a bunch of college kids crammed into a phone booth: 13 varieties of grapes are used to craft this warm and intense wine.
1999 Domaine Drouhin Laurene Pinot Noir, Oregon ($50) This famed Burgundian wine producer and shipper has been a smash hit with his Pacific Northwest ventures, particularly with this paragon of a Pinot Noir. It's a marvel of sophistication, with an ineffably silky texture and delicious fruits.
Many Americans are just learning to appreciate sweet wines. Europeans typically drink them with dessert -- or sometimes as dessert.
Kourtaki Samos Muscat, Greece ($9) This surprisingly pleasing (and surprisingly inexpensive) product of the island of Samos is tough to describe, except to say that it is quite sweet and viscous, with nuances of dried fruit.
2000 Colosi Malvasia delle Lipari Passito, Italy ($36) From an island north of Sicily, the Malvasia grape yields a wonderful apricot-flavored sweetness. It's even good drizzled over pound cake.
1998 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes, France ($40) For the price, this is as fine a representation of Sauternes as you'll find. Golden, not overly sweet, exquisitely concentrated, it's a knockout after just about any meal.
You don't need a birthday, a graduation or a farewell party for a job you didn't like anyway to pull out one of these uncommon, diverting wines. With the right attitude, they are a bash unto themselves.
2002 Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling, New York ($14) If you think upstate New York is all snowshoes and NASCAR racing, then try this remarkable German-style Riesling. It's especially great as an exotic after-dinner sipper: not too syrupy, as some American sweet wines can be.
2002 Braida Moscato d'Asti Vigna Senza Nome, Italy ($19) I like this sparkler because a) it's fun and b) many folks like a semisweet wine after packing away dessert. It's also good before a meal as an aperitif, with melon, strong cheese or dishes like seviche.
Taittinger Cuvee Prestige Rose Brut NV, France ($50) For an extra-special occasion, you can't beat a beautiful bottle of rose Champagne, especially from the historic house of Taittinger.
These have nothing in common, except that they're sure to be conversation pieces.
2002 Senorio de Sarria Vinedo No. 5, Spain ($10) Spanish roses are, to my taste, the best in the world -- drier than those from, say, Provence and Italy. They are fantastic with Thanksgiving turkey (or any poultry), mild cheeses, salmon and more, and are perfect on picnics.
Clinton Vineyards Black Currant Cassis, New York ($35 half-bottle) Incredibly concentrated berries, great as a digestif or drizzled over ice cream. Plus: the cool bottle has definite reading-lamp potential.
2002 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine, Canada ($75 half-bottle) Canadian wine? Drink this knock-your-mukluks-off Ontario sweet wine before snickering. So spectacular it should be given to only the closest of friends.
Port and cheese are a long and felicitous marriage; there's no reason to meddle with it.
Graham's Six Grapes Port, Portugal ($14) For the price of a couple of glasses of bar wine, you can buy this all-occasion port with deep, raisiny flavors.
Taylor Fladgate 20-Year Tawny Port, Portugal ($50) It's plummy and moderately sweet, with an earthy, cigar-box-like aroma.
1977 Fonseca Vintage Port, Portugal ($200) As good as ports get -- deep red, aromatic of dried fruits and molasses, and woody from long aging. This is a gentlemen-repair-to-the-parlor-to-discuss-the-world port. (The women, of course, have already figured it out.)
Bryan Miller is a former restaurant critic for the New York Times.