I’m looking for a good red that is “soft,” which for me means that it hits my mouth gently and is lovely, not harsh. What should I be drinking?—Harrier Goldstein, Watertown, MA
“Soft” is a great adjective, but if you want to up your game at the wine store, what you could say you’re looking for is a red that’s relatively low in tannins (which are astringent) and not very high in acid (which can be sharp). For a good, soft red, I suggest a wine made from Zinfandel, Cinsaut or Grenache. One of my go-tos is the 2014 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel ($26).
What do you think is the best and most underrated wine region in the US? —Melissa Langer, Los Angeles
I’d vote for the area around Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the top wineries (such as Barboursville, Stinson, Michael Shaps and King Family) will impress even the biggest wine snob. Plus, there are plenty of good restaurants—like Fleurie, in Charlottesville (fleurie restaurant.com)—and hotels. I enjoy staying at Veritas winery’s lovely renovated farmhouse B&B (veritasfarmhouse.com).
I love Barolo, but it’s so pricey. Are there any less-expensive wines like it? —Jessica Lynn, Somerville, MA
You’re right, Barolo’s expensive; a good bottle will cost you $70 or more. But many of the wineries that make Barolo, even some of the very greatest, grow more Nebbiolo grapes than they use for their top wine (or farm Nebbiolo in vineyards that lie outside of the demarcated Barolo zone). These grapes typically end up in a category of wine called Langhe Nebbiolo—essentially, Nebbiolo from the much broader and less prestigious Langhe region. Is all of it great? No. But the wines typically cost from $20 to $35 or so, and from top producers like Cavallotto, Paolo Scavino and G.D. Vajra they can easily be mistaken for Barolo itself.
What’s the best red wine to drink with chocolate? —Nancy Heald Heyen, McCalla, AL
Here’s the thing: Any dry red will taste sharp and astringent with sweet chocolate, so I go for a good port, like Graham’s Six Grapes ($25). But if you really want, say, a Cabernet with your chocolate, then pick a bar with a superhigh cacao percentage (80-plus).
Can you use any wine to cook with? —Zima Khan Miller, Georgetown, Guyana
Yes. There’s actually no need to use expensive wine when you cook. Once you boil and reduce a wine, all of the qualities that made it pleasurable as a drink dissipate. What’s left behind—general fruitiness, acidity and, with reds, color—can be great for sauces, braises and so on. But remember that acidity increases as a wine boils down: A tart Sauvignon Blanc will get even tangier. Also, sweet wines don’t lose sugar, so use an off-dry Riesling or a dessert wine only if you mean the dish to be sweet, too.
Can you recommend a good Cabernet for $25 or less? —Lea Gummey, Hockessin, DE
Absolutely. It’s tough to find quality Cabernet Sauvignon from prestigious regions like Napa Valley for less than $25, but it’s relatively easy if you look around the world. Here are 10 recent standouts from the F&W tasting room.
2014 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley ($15) A Washington red offering surprising depth for the price.
2014 Foxglove Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) Pinot specialists Bob and Jim Varner shift gears for this cedary Central Coast bargain.
2015 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas ($17) A hint of Carmenère gives this Chilean release a minty edge.
2014 J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks ($17) Finely made in a crowd-pleasing style, with sweet American oak accents and plenty of aromatic, juicy cherry fruit.
2014 Substance Washington State ($17) Layers of black currant fruit from Washington’s mad genius winemaker Charles Smith.
2014 Broadside Margarita Vineyard ($20) Ripe Paso Robles fruit, but not too ripe; supple tannins balance it out.
2014 Jim Barry The Cover Drive ($20) Cassis and spice notes make up the core of this intense Aussie bottling.
2014 Louis M. Martini Sonoma County ($20) This perennial best-buy Cabernet comes through again in the superb 2014 vintage.
2012 Clos Floridene Graves Rouge ($25) Elegant, structured Bordeaux Cabernet that could cellar well for a decade.
2014 Double Canyon Horse Heaven Hills ($25) Focused, complex and more, it’s proof that Washington state Cabernets are serious steals.