Navigating a Wine List

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Learning what you like.
  • Understanding a wine list.
  • Matching your meal.
Navigating a Wine List

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be intimidating, but the act of smoothly ordering a bottle of wine that your date enjoys can be a great way to impress her. This article will give you the information you need to do just that; but remember, your date may well know something about wine herself. Ask her what she’s interested in. If she seems more knowledgeable than you, offering to let her select what you’ll be drinking can be impressive as well.

Step One: Know What You Like

Some people know more about wine than others, but you don’t have to know much to know what you like. Start off simple. Do you like red or white wine? Maybe you enjoy both, so focus on what you are in the mood for this particular evening. Most restaurants have their lists divided into red and white wines. Once you’ve decided on one, you’ve narrowed your options by 50 percent.

If you chose red, do you prefer light wines or big, bold ones? Subtle wines or straightforward fruity ones? If you’re drinking white, do you like high acidity, citrus flavors, or a creamy, buttery texture? White wines can be light or full-bodied, as well. They can also be fruity, subtle, or even subtly fruity.

The possibilities are endless, but one of these taste combinations is likely to sound more interesting to you. The trick is matching these taste profiles to specific wines on the list.

Step Two: Reading the List

Now that you have some idea of the styles and flavors you like in wine, it’s time to pick up the wine list. For most SharpMen, this is the most intimidating part. How do you avoid embarrassment? By acting confident and knowing which questions to ask:

The Guided Tour. Wine lists are organized in many different ways. As mentioned above, almost all lists split red and white wines into different categories. Some menus catalogue by country or region of origin. Others list by varietal (type of grape).

If you look at a list and are truly lost, speak up: "Excuse me, I’m looking for a nice white wine that’s buttery and very fruity. Do you have any suggestions?" Now there’s an intelligent question. Chances are your server will immediately point out a few different wines, all of which fit your flavor profile. Remember that it is in his or her best interest to help you find what you want. (A happy customer generally tips better.) He or she may also offer to have the sommelier or wine steward speak with you. Don’t be intimidated; be confident and chat with whomever knows the list best.

With this method, you look good and stand an excellent chance of getting a wine you’ll enjoy drinking. Your server will most likely give some other thoughts on each of his or her suggestions. He or she may ask you a question or two. Let your interests guide you. If a particular description appeals to you, try that wine. If the wines he or she suggests are too pricey for you, ask for some other recommendations. Most of the time this subtle request can clue your server into suggesting a few less expensive choices.

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands. If you must tackle the list yourself, here are some quick rules:

  • Names, Grapes and Regions. French and Italian wines are identified by region. Most other countries identify by grape type.
  • White Wines. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio) are the most common white wines at most restaurants. Chardonnay can range from lighter and crisp to full-bodied with buttery and oaky tastes. Sauvignon Blanc is very dry with high acidity, great to liven up your mouth, but not as smooth as some people like. Pinot Gris is somewhere between the two. Most wine lists will designate the type of wine, but, as mentioned above, often French wines are labeled by region. If you want a French wine, ask your server: "Can you recommend a French Chardonnay?" In general, French whites are drier and less oaky with more subtle fruit.
  • Red Wines. Pinot Noir, Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most common types. Pinot Noir is the lightest, and Syrah is often peppery with a full fruit flavor. Cabernet and Merlot are usually extremely full-bodied, often with heavy fruit and tannins (tannins give a dry taste sort of like the aftertaste of strong, black tea). With red wines, French versions tend to be more subtle and earthier.

Step Three: What’s for Dinner?

The main goal is to find a wine you enjoy. Certain wines and foods go well together, each enhancing the flavor of the other. However, it is not a one-to-one match-up. There is a range of quite acceptable options for each kind of food. Again, don’t hesitate to ask for suggestions: "We’re having the lamb and the steak. What wine would you suggest?" Still, it is good to have a few quick guidelines on matching wine to your meal:

White Wines. Whites generally go well with lighter foods. For this reason, red meat and white wine don’t usually work together. Fish, chicken, and even pork are good choices.

Wines that contrast the food in an interesting way are best. An oily fish is wonderful with a bone-dry wine. However, stronger flavors go best with fuller wines. Bass and monkfish stand up best to a full-bodied, oaky Chardonnay. On the other hand, tuna has a strong enough flavor to pair with light reds, such as Pinot Noir. Heavy sauces also call for heavier wines.

Red Wines. Reds are best with red meat. Lamb and steak call for a hearty red, such as a Merlot or Cabernet. Shiraz goes well with a dish that has a lot of pepper or spice. Pinot Noir is a good match for tuna or pork, especially with darker sauces.

These rules are flexible. If you want Pinot Noir with your steak, go ahead. Just ask for a hearty Pinot!

Step Four: It’s All Greek to Me!

Ordering can be painful. Trying to pronounce French wine names can be a challenge — even for the most wine-savvy of SharpMen. Not to fear: if you’ve asked for recommendations, your server has already pronounced it for you. If you’re ordering on your own, don’t be afraid to point. Your server doesn’t have the list memorized and would rather look at the list than have to guess what your mispronunciation means. If you have to say it, be confident. If you aren’t tentative, your server won’t correct you. (He may even assume your pronunciation is more correct than his own.)

Step Five: At the Table

Now that your wine is on its way to your table, relax; the hard part is over. There is a traditional method of serving wine, but don’t worry, your part is easy. The server will show you the bottle to make sure he or she has brought you the correct wine. A nod or a "Yes, thank you," is all the response required. He or she will then open the bottle and present you with the cork. Soggy corks are a bad sign. A quick squeeze will let you know if the cork is OK. Then, he or she will pour you a small taste. Swirl the wine lightly in the glass, look at its color, smell it, and take a sip. The color, smell and taste should be pleasing. If you smell or taste vinegar, the wine is bad and you can refuse it. Most of the time, the wine will be fine. Nod and say thank you and you’re home free.

The Finish Line

Enjoy your wine and dinner. Every time you have a glass, you’ll learn a little more about wine. Be adventurous. Try different types. Learn what you like. Remember your server. He or she helped you have a pleasant wine experience. It is customary to tip 18% or more on the entire check, wine included.

So relax, sit back, and raise a glass to the grand old tradition of wine drinking.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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