Learning how to order wine in a restaurant with confidence is not difficult. There are a few things you need to understand, as well as some basic food pairing principles. The matching of a wine to a food can be the make or break of the meal, get it right and the experience should be memorable, get it wrong and you would have a mismatch and confused palate.

I can remember an occasion, before I became involved in wine, when I went to a restaurant with a friend, who had a wide knowledge of wine. I had to select the bottle but hadn’t a clue about what wine went with what food, let alone what style I was looking for. All I was aware of was that white wine normally went with white meats and fish, while red wine paired with red meats. I plummeted for a wine that I had heard of which would not have gone with the meal. I had to learn how to do it.

Before you order a wine in a restaurant you first need to know a bit about it. Not necessarily about the actual wine itself, but about the variety (or varieties, if it’s a blend); the expected styles and characters of the variety or varieties; and the part of the world this wine has come from. All these snippets of information go to build up a fairly accurate assessment of what you are about to choose.

By knowing the characteristics of different varieties, you will soon be able to piece together useful information. An example of this could be as follows with these two white wines:

  • Chardonnay – can either have a crisp and steely character or a fat, rounded one. Quite often the wine will have spent some time fermenting and/or being stored in oak barrels. It is these barrels which give that buttery, vanilla flavour to the wine as well as a richer colour.
  • On the other hand…

  • Sauvignon Blanc – produces very pale green wines with grassy, lemony aromas. With a slightly higher acid content these wines drink well when young, and accompany any food that likes a citric companion, such as fish and chicken. This lighter style nearly always leaves a more refreshing taste in your palate than the Chardonnay. [NB. Tastings are subjective].

Understanding more about all the popular varieties will give you a head start when you are faced with your selection in the restaurant. Next it is important to know how to taste a wine correctly, I hear you say, ‘tasting wine is easy’, yes it is, but extracting the right information from the tasting via your taste buds takes practice.

If you are a novice, here are some guidelines that should help you on your way to tasting, pairing and assessing competence:

  1. Train your palate. Learn how to taste wines the right way. Become familiar with the 5 S’s, See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savour. Once you can detect the subtleties of flavour and aroma, as well as generally analysing the character of the wine, you will train your palate. Taste numerous wines this way and you will become aware of all the nuances the wine has to offer, then slowly you will build up a hidden database of tastes – just like the professional wine tasters and Masters of Wine do.
  2. What wine goes with what food? Food and wine pairing just takes practice, once again it comes down to the taste buds. When we eat or drink anything we are assessing certain tastes and looking for a good balance between the sugars and the acids.

    The pairing soon becomes obvious, so if we are going to have fish dish that requires a squeeze of lemon to enhance its flavour, the wine we want could also have a lemony or citrus character. We wont be ordering a Chardonnay or a Merlot here but a refreshing young Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling would go well.

  3. Read the label. This might sound obvious, but a good wine label can tell us a lot about the wine. The variety, the age, the dryness of the wine, where it comes from and the alcohol content gives us so much to go on. Package this together with what we have already learnt and we are ready to assess the wine with true professionalism.

A final nugget of information is that you cannot rely on choosing a wine based only on its price especially in a restaurant, although better wines are usually more expensive. Remember, the restauranteur can earn upwards of three hundred percent on wine sales without having to do anything. By getting to know the names of good wines you’ll soon realise who the consistent quality producers are.

Armed with this new found knowledge, show and impress your friends that you know how to order wines in a restaurant with confidence. Go forth and competently select!

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