Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Feel the fear and do it anyway - everything you need to know about ordering wine in restaurants

You've arrived at the restaurant, pleasantly peckish and looking forward to poring over the menu.  The food sounds good, you're feeling relaxed - then you realise you're going to have to choose something from the wine list.
Do you:
a)  Order a bottle of Pinot Grigio/Rioja (they always have some and it's a safe choice)
b)  Order the second least expensive wine on the list so as not to look too cheap?
c)  In a panic order something way too expensive because you think that's what's expected?

There are other options!
First of all - take your time, don't panic, even if faced with a phone directory of a wine list.  Take as much time over the wine choice as over the food if you want to - if the restaurant has taken the time to amass a huge list then they must expect you to spend a while looking through it.
If there is a wine waiter/sommelier, they should be happy to make a recommendation - but if you feel they're pushing you towards a wine that's too pricey, just let them know and ask them if there's a less expensive option.  They are there to make the food and wine look good, not make the diners feel uncomfortable. 
In many restaurants there is no sommelier and your waiter/waitress may have little or no wine knowledge   Here are some pointers to help you out.

  • In general, if the food is from a particular country or region, then choose wines from the same place - Spanish with tapas, Italian with pasta.  Indian restaurants pose a challenge here:  my limited experience of Indian wines would lead me to say, avoid.
  • If the restaurant is at all decent then their house wines should be good - these are the wines they've chosen as the best all-rounders to go with their menus.
  • The big names which are wine list stalwarts – Sancerre, Châteauneuf-du-Pape etc – will probably be there, but will often also be over-priced.  Sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers pride themselves on searching out interesting wines at reasonable prices.  So an unknown wine region or grape could be worth a punt.
  • You don’t have to depart from your normal tastes in wine - if you like Chilean wine, don't feel you "should" be having something else and order claret or white Burgundy.  Going out for a meal is supposed to be fun and the wine should be no different.
  • If you're still really stuck, many places will do wines by the glass, which could provide an easy way out and prevent an expensive mistake. 

"Would you like to try the wine?" 

The waiter brings the bottle you've ordered and asks if you'd like to try it.  
 Do you:
a)  Say "I'm sure it's fine, just pour it please."
b)  Say "Yes", but with no real idea of what to do then.
c)  Say "No, my wife/husband/friend/partner/anyone but me will taste it" (I’m quite familiar with this one)

What should you really do?  What is the waiter expecting of you?  Read on...
Usually the waiter shows you the bottle (unopened) for you to confirm that they've brought the one you ordered.  Do check that it is (if you can remember) as, once it's opened it's too late.  By the way, if they have brought the wrong wine already opened, then you can and should send it back.
One of my pet peeves is a lack of vintage information on wine lists – this is especially important for wines that you should drink young, or for those fine wines from classic regions where varying weather conditions lead to vintage variation.  Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is one of the former, so I would expect the current vintage of 2012 to appear on lists, with 2013s soon to arrive.  If they don’t print a year on the list, I would always ask – and remember to check that it matches the year on the bottle when it arrives.
The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass.  Your job is to assess that the wine is not faulty - you're not really being asked whether you like it or not. 
Firstly, swirl the glass a little and take a sniff.   If there’s something wrong, our noses will pick it up.  Does it smell pleasant?  If not, then there may be something wrong.  Musty, damp cardboard or mouldy aromas may mean the wine is corked.  Taste the wine and see if it tastes OK.  If you still think there's something wrong, tell the waiter you're not sure about it.  Don't be afraid - they want you to enjoy the meal and any bottles of faulty wine will be sent back to their supplier - it won't cost them anything.
If the wine smells and tastes fine, your work is done.  Now you can relax and enjoy the meal! 

Top tip:  little bits of cork floating in a wine do not mean it's corked - there are just...little bits of cork floating in it. 

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