The go-to tips for choosing the perfect bottle–in any restaurant.
Everyone knows the feeling of being handed the wine list at a restaurant with the daunting task of choosing a bottle for a group of friends. In order to relish the opportunity (rather than wanting to slip under the table), Jennifer Raezer—creator of the top-rated wine app that turns casual wine drinkers into experts—has shared her sure-fire tips and tricks.
First Things First…Red or White?
Start by asking your friends around the table the most basic of questions: white or red? Or, if you prefer, pose effectively the same question tailored to what they plan on eating: something light (fish, salad or chicken) or heavy (red meat or a rich pasta)? If everyone is flexible, opt for something that will work with the widest range of dishes, like a big white or a light-bodied red. Or–even better–get both! When deciding on a number of bottles to order, it’s best to do the math. A bottle is approximately five glasses of wine, so it is easily covered by a larger group.
Decide Your Price Range
Don’t be afraid to favor less expensive bottles. If you’re at a restaurant that cares about its wine list and has a talented sommelier, you are nearly guaranteed to get a good bottle of wine no matter the price. In fact, the least expensive bottles are often great values and are a point of pride for the sommelier. In any case, having a tight range is important–it will narrow down the choices and make a big list feel more manageable. On tipping: plan for the same percentage as the food portion of your meal.
Call in the Expert
Engaging the sommelier is always a smart decision—and the most fun part of the process. If one isn’t on staff, ask to speak with the person who knows the most about the list. Then, ask smart questions:
- The basics. Begin by telling the sommelier the two decisions you’ve already made: red or white and price range.
- Wine style. You’re going to want to communicate the style of wine: bold, full bodied and fruit forward, such as cabernet sauvignon (red) or chardonnay (white); or lighter and more acidic with prominent notes of minerality or earth, like pinot noir (red) or sauvignon blanc (white). To go one step further, you can incorporate terroir—the climate and vineyard conditions (soil, sun exposure) in which grapes are grown—into the conversation by asking for a warm or cool-climate style wine. Wines from warmer climates express dark fruit (reds) or tropical fruit (whites) flavors, while those from cooler climates show bright red fruit (reds) or citrus fruit (whites) notes with a good dose of acidity. If you are unsure, tell the sommelier which grape varieties or regions you already like to help guide his or her recommendations.
- Dry vs. sweet wines. One common mistake to avoid: asking for a “dry” wine. Unless you are perusing the dessert menu, nearly every single wine on the list will most certainly be dry. However, there are some notable exceptions; white wines from France’s Vouvray AOC (a sometimes off-dry or half-dry chenin blanc), sweet sparklers from Italy’s Asti DOCG (also known as Moscato d’Asti) and some (but not all!) German whites.
- Feeling adventurous? Once the basics are out of the way, let the sommelier know if you want to stay conservative and stick to wines you know, or be more adventurous and explore non-traditional wines on the list that you’re less likely to encounter elsewhere.
If any bottles recommended by the sommelier are also offered by the glass, ask to get a taste before you commit—this affords total visibility into what you are ordering and will often spark an even better conversation with the somm.
The Final Evaluation
When the sommelier returns with the bottle, there are a few remaining steps:
- Check the label. Make sure the the wine and vintage (year) is what you ordered before you signal that it’s okay to pop the cork. If the vintage isn’t right, point it out. Most of the time it’s the result of an out-of-date wine list (which, for a young wine probably doesn’t necessitate a change and can even work in your favor), but if you’ve ordered a specific vintage, you may want to see the wine list again.
- Taste the wine. Your waiter will present the cork — just keep it on the table (no need to sniff it!) and pour a taste of wine for evaluation. Hold the stem of the glass (not the bulb, to avoid warming the wine and leaving visible fingerprints) and swirl the wine slightly by keeping the base of the glass on the table and making two small quick circles with your hand. Next, smell and taste the wine. If there is something wrong (such as cork taint or oxidation), let the sommelier know or ask for an opinion. If it’s ok, let them know the wine can be poured for the table.
- Control the temperature. White wines are often served too cold, so feel free to ask your server to leave the bottle on the table rather than placing it in an ice bucket. If your red wine could use a slight chill, which is often the case for lighter styles, feel free to ask for that too.