Chardonnay: With almost a Texan spirit, this white wine is large and in charge with a full body and unabashed flavor, alcohol and oakiness. This flamboyance can show itself in notes of tropical fruits such as mango or pineapple as well as a round, buttery texture. Renditions from cooler climates, or where winemakers desire a more subtle style, will be lighter in body and shade toward apples, pears or lemons and less butterscotch exuberance.
Sauvignon Blanc: As a typically medium-bodied wine, Sauvignon Blanc is redolent of citrus fruits such as lemon and grapefruit along with an herbal, grassy quality that reminds many of a freshly mown lawn. Rarely oaky, it is also marked by ample acidity, a tongue-tingling zippiness that makes it taste clean and fresh, like an August plunge into a clear mountain lake.
Riesling: With a range of light- to medium-bodied varieties, Riesling can be anywhere from bone dry to semisweet to quite sweet, though sweeter versions, if they are good, will be counterbalanced by a fresh vein of acidity. It will treat your nose to a prism of delicate fruit flavors, often apples, honeysuckle or peaches. Because many consumers mistakenly associate Riesling with lower-quality, cloyingly sweet versions, the quality stuff is relatively neglected and thus often a good value in restaurants and stores.
Cabernet Sauvignon: This full-bodied and intense wine comes to the party with a swirl of black currants and plums, often joined by hints of cinnamon, coffee or chocolate. Contact with oak can give it a dimension of vanilla or smoke. Cabernet often has a puckery tug of tannin that matches well with proteins and fat of meats and cheeses.
Merlot: "Cabernet without the pain" is my shorthand for this varietal, given its similar flavor profile to Cabernet but typically lower tannins. Good versions will seduce you with a smooth texture that seems to coat your mouth with more velvet than Mae West's bedroom. Though there is no shortage of mediocre Merlot on the market, a good sommelier or merchant can steer you to bottles with complexity and finesse.
Pinot Noir: I call Pinot the "juicy berry kiss" for its strawberry-raspberry perfume, tangy mouthfeel and lack of bitter tannins. Typically light- to medium-bodied, better Pinots can offer subtle aromas of smoke or freshly tilled earth. Versions from warmer climates tend to have more body and alcohol. Pinot is light and smooth enough to take a nice chill (about 10 minutes in an ice bucket), which will focus its flavors and make it even more refreshing.