Many diners feel uncomfortable when faced with navigating a restaurant wine list, but it doesn’t have to be this way - with the following principles in mind, even novice oenophiles can order wine with confidence:
Go With a Game Plan
Nowadays, most restaurants publish their food and beverage menus online, giving patrons a chance to get a sneak peek at the wine selections before entering the bustling environment of a dining room. There’s also a wealth of online resources to help you decode wine menus, including producer and importer websites, wine blogs, and websites like CellarTracker that include tasting notes and scores.
If you have your eye on a particular bottle, you can also call the restaurant ahead of time to confirm availability - many restaurants will even decant the bottle in advance of your arrival (more on that later).
Consider the Context
When you arrive at a restaurant, it’s generally best to determine what you’re eating before you choose a wine in order to ensure that the flavors won’t clash. One general rule of food and wine pairing is that what grows together, goes together - in other words, if you’re at a French restaurant, it’s hard to go wrong with a bottle of French wine.
Another rule of thumb is that the wine you choose should match the flavor intensity of the food in front of you. For example, while lighter fare such as seafood and salads pairs best with delicate white and rosé wines, heavier dishes like steak and lamb practically cry out for full-bodied reds.
The Sommelier is Your Friend
If you’re approached by a sommelier, don’t panic - it’s their job to guide you towards the best possible food and beverage experience, and you make that job easier by communicating key information. A good sommelier should be able to answer questions about any bottle on the list, but if you don’t recognize any of the wines, tell them about other wines you’ve enjoyed in the past, or ask for a pairing recommendation with the dish you ordered.
In addition, don’t be shy about stating your budget - if for example you say you like “great Bordeaux” but don’t specify a price limit, don’t be shocked if the sommelier recommends a bottle with the four-digit price tag.
Placing the Order
Ordering the Wine
Once you’ve decided on a particular bottle of wine, the first step is to communicate your choice to your sommelier. Because wine labels contain a great deal of information (including the name of the producer, vineyard or proprietary name, grape varietal, vintage, and/or region), it can be easy to confuse one bottle with another.
As such, be sure to state the full name of the wine, and point it out to the sommelier on the wine list. If you don’t feel comfortable pronouncing the name of the wine, most wine lists have numerical codes next to each wine called bin numbers that function as shorthand for individual wines.
Confirming the Wine
After the order is taken, the sommelier will return to the table and present the bottle of wine to the host of the table (i.e. the person who placed the order) with the label facing outward. At that point, the sommelier recites the name of the wine aloud and the diner confirms whether or not that is the bottle he or she ordered.
Be sure to take note that all of the data points - producer, vintage, etc. - match exactly what you selected. A restaurant is obviously at fault for bringing you the wrong bottle, but if you accept it and start drinking it before the error is discovered, you’ll probably get stuck paying for it.
Tasting the Wine
Once confirmed, the sommelier will open the bottle of wine and place the cork on the table to the right of the host. Generally speaking, it is not necessary to sniff the cork, as very little can be gleaned from doing so. After that, the sommelier will pour a small taste of wine in the host's glass.
At this point, the host is simply looking for flaws or unpleasant flavors in the wine:
- To begin, tilt your wine glass at a 45 degree angle over a white surface and observe any visible faults such as gas bubbles, sediment, or cloudiness.
- From there, swirl the glass to introduce oxygen into the wine and volitize its aromatic components.
- Insert your nose into the glass and inhale deeply, noticing any off aromas.
- Finally, take a small amount of wine into your mouth and consider how the flavors complement the aromas of the wine.
If the wine does not look, smell, or taste appetizing, politely but firmly ask for the bottle to be replaced.
Decanting the Wine
Finally, the sommelier may ask whether or not you want your bottle decanted. There are two primary reasons to decant a wine: to give young wines a shock of oxygen that allows them to fully express their aromas and flavors, or to rack aged wine off the sediment that often forms inside of bottles. Decanting is rarely employed for white and sweet wines, and almost never for rose and sparkling wines.
Decanted or not, the sommelier will then pour the bottle around the table, generally to ladies first, then to men, and finishing with the host. There you have it - now toast with your companions and enjoy your meal!