FRANCE: My rule of thumb when buying French wines is insultingly easy: the more writing on the label, the better (albeit more expensive) the wine. Four classifications tell you the level of government-deemed quality (from highest to lowest): AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrlee), VDQS (Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure), Vins de Pays and Vins de Table. In an effort to maintain consistency, within each growing region laws delineate grape varieties, watering restrictions and growing techniques, as well as labeling. But recently, after wineries whined that these restrictions strangled their international competitiveness, the French government decided the Vin de Pays level could now show the grape name, instead of just the region. Finally, we'll be able to pronounce something.
ITALY: Italy's wine laws correspond eerily to those of France. But, with the exception of Chianti, the country's regions as well as its grapes are less familiar. Four levels of quality shed light on what you should buy (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 are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (with seven subdistricts) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, where your best deals will be had. Chianti, made from the fruity, red Sangiovese grape, has three levels of quality specifically for that brand: Chianti Classico Riserva, Chianti Classico and Chianti. Knowing producers is not as important as remembering that well-priced Chianti Classico is a reliable choice.
GERMANY: With all the Gothic script on German labels it's a wonder we can read them at all, but at least they're easier to decipher. German labels reflect quality grading and normally list the name of the grape, but Riesling is often implied and omitted. Quality gradings are (from highest to lowest): Qualitat mit Prädikat , QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete), Landwein and Tafelwein. Really the only German wine you want to bother with is Qualitat mit Prädikat. Because Riesling can be either dry or sweet, they invented a six-level Prädikat labeling system, signifying the ripeness -- or sweetness -- of the fruit at harvest: Kabinett, the least mature; Spätlese; Auslese; Beerneauslese; Eiswein; and Trockenbeerenauslese. The best regions are Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau, so look for those, choose your sweetness and experiment.
SPAIN: The Spanish, as with everything else they do, make wine-buying easy. Their labels simply reflect the name of the maker or shipper, and the region. As in the US, there are no quality classifications and 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.
Paul Pernot 2002 Puligny Montrachet A full-bodied, kick-your-ass chardonnay from Burgundy. Rich butter and crisp red apple have a fruit party in your mouth. Good value. $18. 1/2
Borsao 2001 Garnacha Tres Picos Full-bodied and full of personality, yet shows a softer, elegant side. Black cherry, chocolate and a little earthy. For the price, you can't beat this Spanish gem. $10.