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updated: 1/22/2013 11:00 AM

Getting comfy with the right glass of wine

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Wine can be as comfy as your favorite pajamas or as stiff as a dress shirt (extra starch, please!) depending on the wine's structure.

Structure is not aroma or flavor. Structure is the interplay of wine components that support aroma and flavor. (A wine's structure can be compared to the beams, pillars and other structural elements that support your home.)

Alcohol, for instance, is essential to wine for more than its well-documented mind altering quality. As a structural element, alcohol retains aroma and flavor compounds more effectively than water (the reason alcohol is used in perfume production.) On the palate, alcohol contributes viscosity, heaviness and heat.

If your idea of comfort is a big, bear hug of wine, look for a high alcohol wine (14 percent and above), such as Zinfandel, Syrah or Chardonnay from warm weather regions including California, Washington and Australia. Balance alcohol's heat with rich, non-spicy dishes -- such as beef stew -- and keep clear of open flames.

To while away hours of effortless drinking enjoyment, look for low alcohol wine (12 percent and below), such as Riesling, Pinot Noir or Beaujolais from cool climate Oregon or France. Serve with light dishes requiring little energy to enjoy including cheese, omelets and takeout sushi.

Acid protects wine's chemical stability all the way from grape acids to acids that develop throughout fermentation and aging. On the palate, acids are refreshing and tart.

When your mouth and mind need a wake-up call, choose high acid wine, which are almost always from cool climates including Oregon, New Zealand and northern France, especially Champagne. Serve with dishes slathered in cream and butter to cut down on antacid intake.

Warm climate wines are low in acid; unfortunately, they're high in alcohol (see above.) Whether it's acid or alcohol, all wine is rough on the tum-tum -- the vinous equivalent of "if the thunder don't getcha, the lightening will." Follow successful drinking cultures (i.e. the Old World and my neighborhood) and never take wine without food.

Sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation. Leftover sugar (called residual sugar) enhances fruit flavors, adds sweetness and viscosity.

Let's put "dry" and "sweet" into America's culinary perspective. In general terms, bone-dry wines (generally from cool climates) contain 1 gram of sugar per liter, or 0.1 percent. We perceive sugar at 2 g/l (0.2 percent). Warm climate wines contain 0.3 to 0.8 percent while tomatoes contain 0.5 percent and ketchup, 2.3 percent. If you think you prefer dry wine over sweet, ask yourself: do you order your hot dog with raw tomatoes or with ketchup?

Sweeter wine is soft on the palate and easy to enjoy with spicy dishes (sugar and spice make everything nice!), sweeter entrees, such as honey-baked ham, or for a winter classic -- hot spiced wine (see Ross' Choice).

Tannin is another acid that protects wine's development. Tannin is found in skin, seeds and stems of plants; because red wine is produced using grape skins, tannin is prevalent in reds. Tannin is perceived as bitter and astringent, which can be pleasant (espresso) or not so much (banana skin).

When the menu includes steak, duck or rich cheese, choose Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux or Chianti -- wines high in tannins that help the stomach digest fat and protein.

Canny producers have exploited front and back labels to attract drinkers to wine flavors but rarely to wine structure. Turn to your chosen wine merchant for advice, whether your comfort is hunkering down or bouncing up, chowing down on a slab of beef or nibbling on delicacies, an exciting beginning to the day or the prelude to a long winter's nap.

• Contact Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at

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