The rule of thumb when buying French wines is simple: the more writing on the label, the better (and more expensive) the wine. Four classifications tell you the level of quality determined by the government (from highest to lowest): AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlee), Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure, Vins de Pays and Vins de Table. They regulate which grapes can be planted in which region, and within these regions, certain perfectly situated plots of land merit the words "Grand Cru" or "Premier Cru." This specifies the big daddy wines from the best areas ... and you'll need a sugar daddy to afford them. (For more detail on wine regions, read Corkscrew from Oct. 4 and 18, 2001.) Look for AOC and figure out the region where your favorite grapes grow, and you'll be set.
Italy's wine laws correspond to those of France, but they raise it to a higher level of nightmarish complexity. In addition to regulating the grapes for certain areas, they spew forth more than 23,000 different wine labels, listing the formal name of the wine blend on them. Four levels of quality separate the good, the bad and the ugly (from highest to lowest): DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantia), DOC, IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica) and Vino da tavola. Within DOCG, nine "zones" are delineated. The five best known, and available, are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (in seven sub-regions) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Chianti is a red wine from Tuscany made primarily of the Sangiovese grape. These wines are divided into three levels of quality: Chianti Classico Riserva, Chianti Classico and Chianti. Knowing Chianti producers is not as important as remembering the levels of quality, but you may develop favorites. Grab a well-priced Classico and you're good to go.
With all the Gothic script on German labels, it's a wonder we can read them at all, but at least they're fairly easy to decipher. German labels reflect quality grading and normally list the name of the grape, but Riesling is often inferred and omitted. Quality gradings are (from highest to lowest): Qualitat mit Pradikat, QbA (Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete), Landwein and Tafelwein. Really the only German wine you want to bother with is Qualitat mit Pradikat. Within this distinction lie six levels of sweetness and legally the sugar must be attained by allowing the grapes to ripen on the vine (as opposed to adding sugar, a process called "chaptalization"). In ascending order of sweetness: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. The best regions are Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau, so look for those, choose your sweetness and experiment.
The Spanish make life simpler. Their labels simply reflect the name of the maker or shipper and the region. Quality classifications don't cloud your mind, and there are few government rules. Three regions produce the majority of exported Spanish wines: Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedes. Hearty Garnacha and Tempranillo grapes provide the foundations. Also look for the word "Reserva" which indicates higher quality.
Mommessin 1999 Beaujolais Villages Old Vines Gamay ($11) : To avoid French confusion, this wonderfully light, fruity wine has the Gamay grape written on the bottle. Smacks of super-ripe grapes and has quaff appeal. A bargain.
Rocca Delle Macie 1999 Chianti Classico ($13) : Loaded with cherry and raspberry flavor, it's a wonder this wine isn't jelly. With smooth and easy tannins, it's a great food wine.
Rudolf Muller Piesporter 1999 Kabinett ($10) : Lightly sweet and chock full of green apple and pear flavor, this is really easy drinkin'.
Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva 1995 ($18) : Earthy like a Rioja should be, with balanced tannins and fabulous oak. Plummy, and tastes real close to a Pinot Noir. Hmmm.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or call 1-800-341-LOAF.