Tag Archives: how to select wine

What’s the Difference Between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?

Checking the most common searches, lots of you seem to be wondering what the difference is between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Let’s take a quick look:

Which do you reach for most often? Do you have a favorite brand?

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A Five Dollar Cab or a Fifty?

Steve wrote in to ask why one Cabernet Sauvignon wine sells for $5.00 and another for $50.00. What makes the difference? This is a complex quesion but here goes:

Does the $50.00 wine give you ten times more pleasure?

My husband is home! He’s still very weak but it’s great to have him home again. Thanks, again, for your patience with the spotty posts and for all the good wishes. I’ll try to get back to postinig regularly again.

Visit A Million Cooks for more brief videos from experts on the food you eat: Where it comes from, where to buy it and how to prepare it.

Send me your wine question    I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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How to Select Red Wine


malbec, UC Davis

Question from Lindsay: Everytime I go to the store to buy wine for a gift or a party, I’m overwhelmed by the choices.  I know there are Merlots, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and a few other types, but I have absolutely no idea what the difference between all of them are.  To me, they are all red. Can you give a brief overview of the general differences. 

Reply: Hi, Lindsay. Thanks for writing! This is another good question that lots of other people have. A few weeks ago I decided to write about a different grape variety every week, so soon there will be fairly detailed info on the most popular varieties available on the blog. Just do a search by variety. In the meantime, a broad-brush stroke for these reds is a great idea and will be this week’s grape(s) of the week 😉

Disclaimer 😉

Characteristics vary, a little or a lot, depending upon where the wine is grown and how it was made.
Here we go:

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Weight: Full bodied – big – substantial. And deeply colored. If you’re not sure what I mean by weight, you might compare it to the way milk feels on your palate: Light bodied = skim milk; Medium bodied = whole milk; Full-bodied = cream.

Flavor profile: Black fruit such as blackberry, black cherry, black currant; it may show earth, cedar, bell pepper, green olive or any number of other descriptors, depending, again, on where it’s grown and how the wine is made. When the winemaker chooses new barrels for aging the wood may add vanilla, spice, smoke, grilled bread, mocha, nutty character or a sense of toastiness.

Pucker factor (Tannin): Very noticeable. Tannin runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then clings to it. That’s what accounts for the drying, gripping sensation. Cab has thick skins and the skins are the source of the color and most of the tannin. 

If you sometimes think you’re drinking Merlot and it turns out to be a Cab – or vice versa – there’s a good reason. These grapes are similar. Take Cabernet back a notch and it begins to look more like Merlot.

Weight: Medium to full bodied

Flavor profile: Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black: Currant, black cherry, plum, violet, herb-like, earthy; Oak will add some of the woody characteristics described for the Cab.

Pucker factor: Usually noticeable, but softer than Cab. Merlot can leave a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured. Continue reading


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Getting Advice from Wine Critics


Question from Sarah: I really like wine but it’s hard for me to pick it out. Sometimes I buy it because I like the label. Should I subscribe to Wine Spectator or something like that to help me choose good bottles? 

Reply: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for writing! I think everyone will admit to selecting a bottle by the label. I certainly have. 

Using a critic’s advice can be helpful if you and the critic have similar tastes. For instance Robert Parker is famous (or notorious, depending upon who you’re talking to) for giving high marks to reds that are heavy, extractive and high in alcohol. Not everyone appreciates that style. 

I think the best thing to do, if you want to subscribe to a wine publication, is “audition” a few of them to see if you have similar tastes. An experienced, knowledgeable critic, has what it takes to recognize whether or not the wine is well made and representative of its type, but it’s really hard for anyone to overcome personal preference. 

Beyond the score you want to look at how he/she describes the wine to help you decide if you might like it. In any case, I don’t recommend buying multiple bottles of wine based upon a critic’s opinion. Try a bottle and see what you think. If you love it you can go back for more. 

One of the best ways to find wine you really like is to develop a relationship with a good retailer who knows his wine and his inventory. Tell him about wines you’ve enjoyed before and he’ll make educated suggestions. Be sure and talk with him about his recommendations once you try them. He’ll ask how you liked the Syrah he suggested last time and you can say “loved it!” or “Too spicy for me.” Or whatever. If you keep this up his suggestions will get better and better. This creates a great foundation for the day you want to branch out and try something new. Knowing your tastes, he can sell you your first bottle of, for instance, Cotes du Rhone and chances are you’ll be happy with your purchase.  Continue reading

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Which are the Best Merlots?


Question from Diana: Can you give me a guide to the different Merlots. Which one taste better and the different prices?

Reply: Hi, Diana. Thanks for writing! I’m a Merlot lover too.

I’m afraid that “tastes better” is a personal matter, just as it is with any other food. How much garlic do you like in your spaghetti sauce? Do you put mustard or ketchup on your hot dogs – or both? We don’t all appreciate the same things. 

I have two pieces of advice for you. 

1. Find a good wine retailer who knows his wine, his inventory and is service oriented. Develop a good relationship with him.  This is one of the best ways to explore and learn about wine. The wine may cost a little more than it does at the grocery or big-box store, but the advice of an experienced professional is absolutely worth the cost. 

There are a gazillion brands of Merlot from all over the world with prices ranging from$1.99 for “two-buck Chuck” Merlot to ~$2500.00/bottle for Chateau Petrus. You need someone right there with you when you make your choice. 

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How to Read a Wine Label


Dontcha just love this label?!

So, what do all those designations on it really mean? For today, let’s just take a look at American wine labels. Fortunately, the regulations behind other new-world labels are extremely similar – how convenient! The old world is quite another matter.

The Brand
Of course, this is self explanatory, although don’t forget the “virtual” producer, which doesn’t have a brick and mortar winery. There are lots of them and these producers are usually so small that they can’t justify building an actual winery. They use a “custom crush” facility like Napa Wine Company (really fun tasting room, BTW!) or use another winery’s equipment. 

Also, restaurants and some stores may feature their own brand. In that case, most likely, they’ve contracted with a winery to produce their wine. I assume that’s true for most celebrity brands, too.  

The Appellation of Origin
When you see a place name such as Oregon or Alexander Valley it refers to where the grapes were grown, not the location of the winery. The government calls this the appellation of origin. To me, this is a make or break issue – some growing regions are a heck of a lot better than others.

If it’s a very general appellation, like the name of a state, this is just a geographical declaration and the minimum requirement is 75%. Individual states my upgrade, but not downgrade, the requirement. For instance, if the label says California, 100% of the grapes must be California grown.
Continue reading

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