We've all been there. Maybe it's a first date, an important business meeting or just a chance for a nice meal. You arrive at the restaurant, are politely shown to your table, sit down and are given the menu to read. Great so far. Then the dreaded moment; the wine list arrives. Red or white? Sparkling or rosé? Old or New World? Are you eating fish or beef?
You pick something that sounds OK and affordable, and are subjected to a bizarre tasting ritual that you don't fully understand. Left with a bottle of some vinegary substance, you wonder why everyone else seems to be able to order good wine apart from you. No one has been impressed by your choice, and although the evening is pleasant, you can't help noticing the people at the next table laughing uproariously at the slightest joke. It must be that nice bottle of Sancerre on the table...
Rewind a little. Before you even get in the shower, read this Entry.
The Wine List, Sir?
You won't lose the girl or the deal over a bottle of wine, but it's important to make the right choice. If money is no object, you can simply ask the waiter to bring his best vintage over and be done with it - though if money is no object, you'll probably have tasted enough wine to be able to cope without this Entry anyway! However, you'll look a lot better if you take some time to choose the right wine.
The wine list will usually be presented to the dominant male in the group; the birthday boy, male in the couple, or the person who made the booking. In all-female parties, it will be hovered over the table in a faintly embarrassed way until someone takes it. If you want to impress, you must get your mitts on it immediately. Take charge.
Ask of your fellow diners if they would prefer red or white, and go along with their choice. This not only keeps them happy – you're here to impress - but also rules out half of the possibilities without delay. Rosé is made of red grapes like red wine, but is separated from the peels at an early stage and from that time on treated like a white wine in the production process - the peels give the wine its distinctive colour, but in taste it is most like a white. From here, your choice will be helped if you remember:
Unless you're on a budget, avoid the house wine1. This tends to be a fairly poor quality wine, bought in cheap and sold with a large margin, simply for the benefit of people who 'don't normally drink wine' and the owner's pension fund2. Wines recommended by the waiter without prompting will probably fall into this category, too.
If nobody's bothered whether you order white or red, a good rule is that red wines work better for red meats and game, white wines for white meats and fish.
'Brand' wines that are heavily advertised will be on the wine list because of the marketing rather than their quality. If you’ve seen it on television, a proportion of the price will be based on the fact that people have heard of it – fine to drink at home, but not good value for money when eating out.
To a lesser extent, wines that most people have heard of – Chianti or Chardonnay, for example – will be a little overpriced as they will be bought regardless of quality. They do, however, offer a good quality wine at a reasonable price; a standard that can be relied upon.
Don't be afraid to ask for advice from the wine waiter. Don't go through the whole list with him, but feel free to point out a specific wine or two that you don't know and ask him what it's like.
Alternatively, you can define the type of wine you'd like; 'a rich, dark, fruity, red' or a 'lighter, Beaujolais-style wine' and see what he proposes - usually (if he's half-decent at his job) he'll give you a couple of alternatives in differing price brackets.
Always remember that a restaurant that cares about its food will also care about its wine. If, for example, you're eating Italian, look for Italian wines as a good restaurateur will have taken the trouble to find the wines he/she thinks best from that country – and you'll have a good range of price and quality, too.
Local wines can be hit-and-miss, but can bring a real flavour to a region if you are on holiday.
Some would say you should never, ever, ever, buy Liebfraumilch or Lambrini. However, taste is entirely personal, and if your co-diners seem unwilling to drink something they're not comfortable with, it's better to stick with what they know rather than foist something upon them that they may find unpleasant.
If you're feeling really confident, you could even try to learn a few types of grapes that will help when making your choice. Different grapes have quite different qualities, so it's worth learning a few basics.
Here are three of the most popular grapes used to make red wines:
Cabernet Sauvignon - considered the premier red grape, mainly because it ages very well, especially if aged in oak barrels. It is often described as having a blackcurrant or dark cherry flavour, but can also produce quite a spicy, almost peppery wine.
Merlot - a faster-maturing grape that can be grown in cooler climates, characteristics which make it especially popular with producers around the world. It produces a soft and fruity wine that is very smooth and easy to drink.
Shiraz - also known as Syrah, Shiraz is named after a city in Iran which is known as the city of flowers, wine and poetry. It was used primarily as a grape to be blended with others until Australian producers took it to their hearts, and is now renowned for producing full-bodied, powerful wine.
And three whites:
Chardonnay - the primary grape used in champagne and one of the world's most popular grapes. It is very versatile: in America it is aged with oak to give a smokey, caramelised flavour; in Europe it is often aged without oak to keep a light fruity flavour; and in Australia it is blended with Semillon grapes. The tastes are not radically different, but knowing that an Australian chardonnay will have a fuller flavour than a French could help your decision.
Riesling - a German grape that can be used to make dry or sweet wines. Its versatility is helped by the Edelfäule, or 'noble rot', a kind of helpful mould that drains the juice from the grapes, concentrating their sweetness. The sugar is balanced by high acidity. It is considered a highly thirst-quenching grape and often has a flowery, tropical fruit flavour.
Sauvignon Blanc - a prolific grower, meaning that it is excellent value for money as production costs are low. It is often described as having a melon or gooseberry-like flavour, although wines grown in cooler climates are more herby or grassy. It is also frequently blended with Semillon, which helps to round out the flavour.
Would You Like To Taste The Wine?
Of course you would. Be a shame not to, as it's costing so much.
The person who ordered the wine will usually be asked to taste it. Yes, that means you. Don't know what you're tasting for? It doesn't matter.
Imagine you've been served a meal that you ordered but which turns out to be burnt. You'd send it back to the kitchen and either get an alternative meal or let the chef try again. If you ordered cod, however, and then decided you didn't like fish, that would be down to your choice and you wouldn't expect a replacement meal. So it goes with the tasting. You have absolutely no right to send the wine back simply because you don't particularly like it.
First, the waiter will come over with the wine. He will show you the bottle. When he presents the bottle, reach over and touch it to check the temperature. If you order a white wine and it comes out at room temperature, don't hesitate to ask for an ice bucket as it will cool down enough while you're waiting for your starters. In the same way, if your red wine is served straight from the freezer, you might want to ask for a different bottle, or even a completely different wine if they haven't a bottle at a decent temperature. Next, confirm that it is the one you ordered, comparing with the wine list if necessary, and he will open it for you. Pop. He will ask if you would like to taste the wine, and you must say yes.
You're not tasting the wine to see if you like it, as you would if you were in a vineyard. It is presumed that you know what you are ordering and know roughly what it should taste like. You're tasting it to make sure it isn't corked.
Hotel Inspector: This wine is corked!
Basil Fawlty: Of course it's corked; that’s how I got the wine out of the bottle, and into the glass.
If a wine is corked, it means that fungus has infected the wine to create a very unpleasant taste. Don't worry that you might not pick this up; you will know. Corks are frequently made of plastic or have screw-tops these days, but it's an important part of the process to taste the wine. In fact, it is good etiquette to taste the wine even if you don't intend to drink it (you may be a beer drinker) if you have ordered it; this says to our companion(s) that you deem the wine to be acceptable for them. It's a very big psychological step; sniff the wine, sip it, roll it around your mouth and swallow. If you're happy, the wine waiter will fill your companions' glasses first, then top yours up.
Another Glass, Sir?
Your glasses will be filled, and the drinking may commence. Keep an eye on your friends' glasses; they should never be fully-drained or fully-filled. Good wine waiters will do this for you, especially on a quiet night or if they have taken a shine to you! There must always be enough wine in the glass to create a fragrant bouquet without the glass being uncouthly full. Remember that the end of the main course is not the end of the meal; if you would like time to talk or enjoy the post-meal afterglow, order another bottle sooner rather than later. Ordering wine after the main course has been eaten can make you look like you're desperate for as much booze as possible while you can, so if you want more, attract the waiter's attention while you're still tucking into the main.
Be careful, however, that you do not fill your friends' glasses without them noticing. This could, potentially, ruin the evening if they drink more than they can handle! Always check that they would actually like another glass before you pour.