MAKE THE RIGHT IMPRESSION
For a growing number of people, wine is a key part of their dining experience in restaurants and at home. Since no one was born an instant wine expert, you have to experiment to discover the wines you enjoy and can afford.
Knowing how to order wine in restaurants helps you to make the right impression on your guests. There is a misconception on the part of some people, however, that selecting wine is a male thing. There is no reason for a woman to defer to a man in selecting the wine when dining out together or shopping at a wine store.
Here are some general characteristics of wine:
- Wines have certain varying basic dimensions or qualities. The most common is the extent to which a wine is either full-, medium- or light-bodied. This refers to the strength or heaviness of the wine. Another common trait for white and rosé wines is the degree to which a wine is “dry” (i.e., crisp, clean and almost acidic tasting) at one end of the spectrum or “sweet” at the other end.
- Most wines are referred to as “table wines”, which are served with the beginning and main courses of the meal. Some sweet wines are referred to as “dessert wines” which are only served with the dessert or cheese courses.
- The largest producing and exporting wine countries are Italy, France, Australia, Spain, the U.S., Germany, Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Excellent wines are also produced in many other countries, including Canada, but are exported in much smaller quantities.
- The world’s most expensive red and white wines come from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France. The best quality of wines often need to “age” in their bottles for anywhere from three to ten years before they reach their prime for drinking. The year in which the wine is produced by the wine maker is known as the “vintage” of the wine. Most wines should be drunk as soon as they are released since they do not need to age.
- As the grapes used to produce wines are heavily affected by climate and weather conditions, the quality of wines produced in a region varies from year to year. When weather conditions are ideal throughout the grape- growing season, wineries will produce their best vintages of wines.
- Wines are usually designated according to the type of grape used in producing them. Many common species of grapes, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, are used to produce wines in different countries and regions. Some wines are produced with a blend of different grapes. The alcohol content of wine generally ranges from 11.5% to 13.5%.
- To learn more about wines and discover those you like within an affordable price range, visit your local wine store and ask the manager to give you an explanation of the different types of wines available and their tastes. Usually, such individuals are delighted to have an opportunity to show off their wine knowledge. Other sources of wine information are the Web sites www.winespectator.com, www.sokolin.com and www.zachys.com, and wine publications such as Wine Spectator magazine.
- Some of the more popular red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (or Shiraz), Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, Barolo and Rioja. Popular white wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio), Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The most popular wine type produced in the U.S. is Chardonnay.
- Often, the most popular better wines are the most overpriced. To avoid this, select a wine from a less well-known region or country whose wines are lower priced. Currently, the “best value” red wines include Carmenère from Chile, Chianti from Italy, Douro from Portugal, Malbec from Argentina and Chile, Rioja from Spain, Shiraz from Australia, and Syrah from Chile and South Africa. The best value white wines presently available include Chenin Blanc from South Africa; Reisling from Australia, Austria and Germany; Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa; and Pinot Grigio, Soave and Verdicchio from Italy. Excellent value rosé wines are available from France, Italy and Spain. Each of these wine types is produced by many wineries so the quality obviously varies, depending on the producer. There are also a large number of reasonably priced wines available from American wineries.
- Another approach to finding excellent value wines is to purchase the low-end category of wines offered by some of the best worldwide wine producers.
- Anticipate getting about five glasses from a full bottle of wine. At a social function, expect your guests to drink about three glasses of wine each. At a business event, people will usually drink less. Avoid serving wine in glasses that are too small.
To store wine at home, find a place where the bottles can lie horizontally away from any sunlight or other direct light. The ideal temperature for wine storage is about 55°F or just under 13° Celsius but avoid any location where there will be wide variations of temperature. The less that your wine is moved around, the better.
Most restaurants will either include a wine list at the back of the menu or give one to you separately. If not, ask the order-taker for a wine list. Most medium- to expensive-priced restaurants have someone on staff who is knowledgeable about wines. When you need some assistance in selecting a wine, ask your order-taker if you could talk to such a person, referred to as the “sommelier” or “wine steward”.
Keep these points in mind when you order wines in restaurants:
- It is rarely necessary to pay a lot of money for a reasonably good bottle of wine in a wine store or restaurant. If a restaurant’s order-taker or sommelier recommends a bottle of wine that is too high-priced, politely ask him or her to suggest the best one in a less expensive price range. Rather than discussing the price you want to pay openly in front of your guests, point to the price of a wine on the list and say to the order-taker, “What do you recommend in this price range?” Alternatively, ask what wine the chef or restaurant manager drinks as it will usually be a less expensive wine that goes well with the restaurant’s food.
- The best-run restaurants attempt to offer their customers a selection of good-tasting wines at different price levels and from different wine-producing countries. The job of the sommelier or wine steward is to hunt down the best possible selection of wines available on a worldwide basis.
- Restaurants generally mark up the price of their wines by 100-150% over their cost. So, if a wine costs $10.00, the restaurant will price it at $20.00 to $25.00.
- Some restaurants have a “house wine” available in bottles that is usually an excellent deal in terms of taste and price. Simply ask your server, “Do you have a house wine available and do you recommend it?” This is often a good choice, especially if you are ordering wine for a large group.
- Many restaurants offer their “table” or “house wine” in a carafe and half-carafe (approximately equivalent to a full and half-bottle respectively) for a much lower price than their regular wines. Restaurants also usually have half-bottles of wine available if you prefer something of a better quality but only want about three glasses of wine. In addition, most restaurants offer a choice of wines by the glass.
- It is often helpful to let the sommelier know what food you have ordered before asking for any wine recommendations as the wine you select should complement the taste of your food. Sometimes when there are four or more people at your table, you may want to order a white wine for the first course and a red wine for the main course. If there are just two of you and one of you wants a white wine and the other a red wine, consider ordering a half-bottle of white and red wine if they are available.
- As a general rule, red wines go best with meat and white wines with fowl, fish and seafood. Also, heavier-bodied wines are usually paired with heavier foods, such as steaks and dishes served with rich sauces, while lighter-bodied wines are paired with lighter foods. Increasingly, slightly chilled light- to medium-bodied red wines are also being served with fish dishes, especially ones where the meat of the fish is darker in color. Select a wine that has some fruit or sweetness to it for spicy foods as opposed to a dry wine. Generally, wines should be chosen to match the most dominant element of the food being served. During the summer months, rosé wines are often served with all types of dishes. Whether you decide to select a red, white or rosé wine really depends on your own preference. If you are unsure which type of wine to order, ask your guests whether they would prefer to have a red, white or rosé wine. One of the best Web sites for suggestions on pairing wines with food is www.nataliemaclean.com.
- There has been a huge increase in the popularity of dry rosé wines during the summer and warm-weather months worldwide. Rosés are excellent to have before meals as an aperitif, with starters such as tapas, and with a wide variety of other foods. Rosé wines are generally quite reasonably priced and should be drunk as soon as they are bottled as rosés usually do not age that well beyond one or two years.
- Order Champagne before the meal when you want to celebrate something or are in a festive mood. Champagnes vary in terms of being dry or sweet but most people prefer the drier types of “Brut” or “Extra Dry” Champagne. While Champagne is only produced in France, other less expensive, excellent sparkling wines include Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain. For a change, you can also order rosé Champagne and sparkling wines.
- You can also drink many Champagnes and sparkling wines during a meal as they go well with a lot of different foods, including shellfish, sashimi, fried dishes and salads.
- About 55% of Champagne sold in the U.S. is bottled under the Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot brands. While these and the other top Champagne brands dominate the market, an increasing number of Champagnes are being offered by small independent grower-producers at more affordable prices. There are also excellent American sparkling wines available at reasonable prices.
- Close to 90% of Champagne is “non-vintage”, meaning there is no year designed on the label of the bottles as they were produced from a blend of wines from different years. Champagne and sparkling wines are mainly produced from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.
- Some wines are available in magnum-sized bottles which contain 1.5 litres of wine. Ordering a magnum of good wine is another way to celebrate special occasions. Generally, wine is supposed to age better in magnum bottles. Skip ordering double-magnums and larger-sized bottles as it looks too showy to do so.
- If you are ordering a bottle of wine from a wine list and are unable to pronounce the name of the wine, order it using the number of the wine showing on the wine list. Say, ”I’d like to order a bottle of number 32.” Alternatively, just point to the wine you want on the wine list and say, “I’d like to order a bottle of this wine.”
This is the procedure after you have ordered your wine in a restaurant:
- The person serving the wine should first show the bottle to you (so you can make sure it is the one you ordered, including the vintage year) and then open it at the table. After opening the bottle, the server will hand you the cork or place it beside your glass and then pour a small amount of the wine into your glass for you to taste to confirm it is in good condition and at the right temperature.
- If you are happy with the wine, nod your head to the server as a sign to begin pouring everyone else’s wine and then lastly yours. If you think something is not right with the color, smell or taste of the wine apart from the temperature, politely express your concern to the server and request that you be given another bottle. If there is any dispute about this, ask the server or sommelier to smell or taste the wine.
- There is a quasi-ritual that is followed by wine lovers in tasting good wines both at restaurants and at home. After the sommelier or you have poured about an ounce, pick up the wineglass and tilt it so that you can look at the intensity and clarity of the wine’s color. Then, swirl the wine in the glass and put your nose inside the rim of the glass to sniff the aroma of the wine. Next, sip the wine and gently swirl it around in your mouth to taste the wine’s flavor, body and temperature. To gain a proper overall impression of a good wine, you have to use a combination of your senses of sight, smell, taste and even feel (in your mouth).
- When you are first handed the cork, it is not really necessary for you to sniff it as has traditionally been done. Look at the cork and then set it down beside your glass. If the wine tastes “off”, however, smell the cork to see if it has an acrid or moldy scent.
- Do not be put off if the wine you are served comes with a screw cap as opposed to a cork. Screw caps are increasingly being used with quality wines as tests have shown that wines with screw caps age much better than those with corks.
- Red wines are usually served at room temperature or slightly cooler. White and rosé wines should always be served chilled but not ice-cold. Champagne and other sparkling wines are best served quite cold. If the wine or Champagne does not appear to be chilled enough when you first taste it, request that it be chilled some more before being served. Ask for an ice bucket or wine cooler for your chilled bottle of wine to sit in if you are not given one after the wine has first been served.
- Wineglasses should only be filled to a maximum of one-third to one-half of their capacity. Do not let the wait-staff pour more than that amount, especially with chilled wines, unless you are ordering wine by the glass. Champagne and other sparkling-wine glasses ideally should be tilted and filled one-half to three-quarters full.
- Wineglasses used for chilled wines should be held by the stem of the glass when you are drinking from the glass to avoid warming the wine. Wineglasses for wines served at or close to room temperature should be held under the bowl of the glass.
- If a wineglass is at your place setting and you do not want to have any wine, place the fingers of your right hand over the top of the glass when the server or sommelier comes around to pour some wine for you. Alternatively, at less formal meals you can just turn over your wineglass. Both of these gestures signal that you do not want any wine.
- At up-scale restaurants, the waiter or sommelier should normally be the only ones who handle the wine bottle and refill everyone’s wineglasses as needed. If the server looks extremely busy, however, it might be better to tell the server that you will pour the wine yourself after your guests have been given their first glass of wine. At casual to mid-priced restaurants, it is customary for the host to refill everyone’s wineglasses. If you are pouring the wine, fill everyone else’s wineglass before you fill your own.
- When a wine bottle that has been kept chilled in an ice bucket is finished, you can place it upside down back in the ice bucket, especially if you want to give a sign to your waiter to ask if you would like to order another bottle.
- While this is somewhat controversial, I believe that the taste of most medium- to expensive-priced red wines improves if they are decanted into a large glass container anywhere from one-half to one hour before being served. When you order such a wine, simply ask the server or sommelier, “Could you please decant the wine for us.”
- The purpose of decanting a younger wine is to expose it to more air, thereby speeding up the maturing of the wine. Done properly, decanting older wines minimizes the amount of sediment that gets into the wine decanter. In both cases, decanting usually has the benefit of opening up and improving the aroma and taste of the wine.
If you drink wine on a regular basis, it is inevitable that you will experience having an “off” bottle. This information will help you deal with this situation:
- The condition of wine, in terms of its drinkability, is adversely affected by being stored at too high a temperature or at varying temperatures, becoming contaminated at some stage in the production process or by not being drunk soon enough after it was bottled. Any of these factors can make the taste of the wine overly austere and even slightly bitter or sour, especially white wines.
- Increasingly, wine is also suffering from being bottled with impaired corks that give the wine a musty, moldy smell (sometimes similar to wet cardboard) and taste, plus often make the wine appear cloudy and leave a residue on the top of the wine. Such wine is referred to as being “corked”. This problem is apparently affecting up to 7% of wines bottled with corks and is causing some winemakers to switch to using aluminum metal screw-caps or synthetic plastic corks as opposed to natural corks.
- The term “corked wines” refers to all wines that have experienced TCA contamination. This problem mainly arises from tainted corks but can also result from contamination of the wine barrels or even the surrounding wood in the cellar of the winery. While TCA contamination certainly negatively affects the aroma and taste of a wine to varying degrees, its presence does not pose a health risk.
- When you are served a bottle of wine that tastes “off”, you usually should select a different wine as its replacement since often an entire case of wine can have the same problem. This is not necessarily so with a bottle of wine that is “corked”. Do not be shy if the second bottle of wine is off or corked. Politely insist that it be replaced also. This time, however, definitely switch to a different wine.
- If you are going to send back a bottle of wine at a restaurant, do so right away before much of the bottle has been drunk. Similarly, if you experience an off bottle that you have purchased from a wine store, recork and return it for a credit or refund before you have drunk very much of the bottle.
It is usually not necessary to tip the sommelier or wine steward separately for serving the wine unless he or she did something extra for you. Most restaurants share the tips among all the staff, especially everyone involved in waiting on the tables, including the sommelier. If you had an extremely expensive bottle of wine, you may decide to tip the sommelier separately at 10% of the wine’s price and give a higher percentage tip for the total cost of the food.
When I travel, I always order the wines of the local country or region whenever wines are produced there. If I am not familiar with them, I describe to the restaurant’s order-taker or wine sommelier the type of wine I prefer (such as “a dry, somewhat full-bodied white wine with just a hint of fruit, etc.”) and ask the person to recommend his or her favorite local wines that have these characteristics. Similarly, if you like beer, always order the best beers of the local region when you travel.
If you want to get serious about becoming knowledgeable on the subject of wines, look into Wine Spectator
magazine’s ten-class “Understanding Wine” course that is offered online through www.winespectatorschool.com
. It is a good investment to increase your lifelong enjoyment of wine.
The most frequently served alcoholic drink at Japanese restaurants is saké. Increasingly, saké is also being offered at other types of restaurants as an alternative to wine. Generally, the best quality of saké is served chilled while less expensive saké is served heated. Saké should be sipped like wine and served in a small, thin-rimmed ceramic cup or glass.
Like wine, saké comes in varying degrees of dryness and sweetness. Some saké bottles and menu lists use a “Saké Meter Values” (S.M.V.) numbering system to indicate the degree of sweetness or dryness with -10 being the sweetest, scaling up to +10 being the driest. The rating of ±0 is neutral in terms of sweetness and dryness. Saké often can be ordered by the half-bottle.
There are two principal categories of saké – honjozo which contains a small amount of distilled alcohol, and junmai which is pure rice saké. Most of the best quality saké is junmai which comes in three grades quality-wise – junmai, ginjo and daiginjo (the equivalent of good/better/best).
Saké is basically fermented rice and water brewed in a somewhat similar manner as beer. Saké’s alcohol content is about 14-16% which is higher than most wines. Saké’s taste is lighter, purer and less acidic than wine. Consequently, it is best served with light foods, such as seafood, shellfish and most Japanese cuisine. Saké is not suitable to have with rich, heavy foods and dishes.
In Japan, it is considered impolite to fill your own glass of saké or wine. Lower-ranked individuals are expected to pay special attention to keeping the glasses of their superiors always full. For formal occasions, use two hands when pouring saké from a bottle, placing one under the neck and one on the body of the bottle. Saké glasses should be filled 80% full.
Saké should generally be consumed fresh within 6-12 months of being released by the producer. It is also best stored refrigerated. A few stronger types of saké, such as koshu, are aged for seven or more years in cedar barrels. Saké importers are starting to place English labels on their bottles to list the grade, release date and producer’s name. Some of the better saké producers are Dewazakura, Kamoizumi, Masumi, Okunomatsu and Wakatake.
Some time ago, I was visiting Mexico City and was going to dinner at a highly regarded restaurant located out of the center of the city in an old hacienda. Despite having made the reservation under the name “Doctor Steele Curry” (thinking this might enhance my chances of getting a good table), we were receiving indifferent attention and service.
Having done my homework beforehand, I ordered what was supposed to be one of the best Mexican white wines. When the sommelier offered me the wine to taste, it was obvious that the bottle was “off”. I requested that the wine be replaced with another bottle. When the second bottle came, I again tasted that something was wrong with the wine. This time I said to the sommelier, “Here, could you please taste it for yourself.” The sommelier did so, admitted the wine was off, and returned with another bottle.
After tasting the third bottle, I again asked the sommelier to check it for himself, which he did and then went back for a fourth bottle. By this time, there were three waiters standing around the table watching the sommelier and myself tasting the wine. I must have hit a bad case as I had to send back nine bottles of wine until I was served one that tasted as it should.
Virtually each time I sent back a bottle, another waiter joined the crowd around the table. I did not understand why the waiters were all smiling until I realized that they were probably going to get to drink all the rejected bottles back in the kitchen. From that point onward, we received superb service from everyone in the restaurant. In hindsight, however, I should have switched to a different wine after rejecting the first two or three bottles.