How many times have you been at a restaurant feeling unsure which wine you should order with your food?
If you follow my blog, you will know I am a wine lover. I love travelling to wine regions, do wine tastings and like a good glass of wine with my food.
That does not mean I am an expert when it comes to pairing wine with food. I am really not. However, I usually feel fairly confident ordering wine.
It certainly helps that over the years I’ve gained some knowledge about wine. However, even if you don’t know much about wine, it is not difficult to act confidently. You just need to know a few tricks that will make you come across like someone who actually knows a thing or two about wine.
Know the wines you like most
We all have our preferences. You might prefer a latte over a cappuccino, a beer over wine, red wine over white wine … Well, you get it.
Chances are, you will like a particular wine more than another.
So first thing first, find out which wines you like most. This does not mean to stick with a particular varietal or even the same label.
Instead, you might find you like a zesty white over a buttery white which means sticking with a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc will normally serve your taste better than a Chardonnay.
The same thing is true for red wines. You might find you like the lighter, fruitier style more than full-bodied one, thus going with a Merlot instead of a Sauvignon Blanc.
Try different wines from different regions and different varietals at home to work out the styles you like most.
This will give you a head start when ordering your wine at a restaurant.
Still, there remain some peculiarities. How a wine tastes can be significantly impacted by the food you are going to eat with it. Likewise, a wine can do a great deal to enhance or diminish the flavour of your food.
So how are you going to order a wine if you don’t know what type best pairs with your food?
How to order wine at a restaurant if you don’t know what type best pairs with your food
Let’s start with the most obvious one.
You could simply ask the expert. Which is either your waiter or a sommelier. They will be happy to make a recommendation. After all, that’s the reason they are there in the first place and there is nothing wrong in admitting you are not an expert.
Personally, I usually use a mixture of coming across as someone who knows about wine and getting advice from the sommelier.
Going down this route however means you should have a general idea about wine pairing.
What are the main rules pairing wine with food
So here we are down to a bit of needed wine knowledge; but don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as you might think.
You really don’t need to know exactly what types of flavours, weight and spiciness in food requires needs to be matched with wines that are heavy, delicate, high in tannins, and so on … Yes, indeed that sound intimidating, right.
Instead, just remember the types of food your favourite wines will pair best with. For example:
Chardonnay – works great with fatty fish (i.e. salmon) or fish/seafood with rich sauces
Sauvignon Blanc – works with food that is tart or spicy
Pinot Grigio – works perfect with light fish and seafood dishes
Riesling (dry) – is excellent for sweet and spicy dishes
Cabernet Sauvignon – is the perfect wine for juicy red meat
Merlot – works well with light meals like chicken or slightly spicy meals
Pinot Noir – works well with food with earthy flavours like mushrooms
Shiraz – pairs well with sweet-spicy food, heavy seasoned and spicy dishes
How to read a wine list
Wine lists are typically organized in sections of white, rose and red wines. Which is quite obvious as it is clearly stated.
What you might not know is that they typically follow another order which is not so obvious when you are not a wine expert.
Wine lists will normally start with lighter wines at the top and the wines will get heavier as you get further down.
Which means, in case you do not remember which wines are full bodies and thus better with heavier food, you should go for those further down on the list.
How to talk wine pretending you are an expert
So back to the conversation with your waiter or the sommelier if you want to get a recommendation but don’t want to admit you are out of your depths.
Normally, I will have a look at the wine list to scan the offer and when approached by the sommelier if I have found a wine I like, a typical conversation could look like this:
Actually I would like to start with a white. Either a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc (after making sure both varietals are on the list) but I can’t quite decide which one is the better fit with the (enter the food ordered). Which one would you recommend?
This will normally trigger an explanation about the wines like: Well, we have the XYZ Chardonnay which is full-bodied with a crisp lemony note which will be perfect with your salmon.
More importantly, though, should the wines in question be offered by the glass (independently whether you want to order a glass or a bottle) it is likely you will be offered to taste both wines. Which means, you can than go for the one you like most.
There is also a good change the recommendation includes a different wine – i.e. a Gewürztraminer – which has some similar characteristics as the wines you’ve originally asked for. In this case, you are also likely offered to taste it beforehand.
Personally, I quite often go with the alternative recommendation; unless I really don’t like it when I’ve tasted it. Firstly because it means I will expand my wine knowledge with a wine I’ve likely not tried before. In addition, as it was suggested by a wine expert, it should work well with my food. Plus, it is a great way to get away with admitting you did not know about that particular wine (and who is familiar with all wines) but after tasting can compliment the sommelier for a great recommendation. It will make me look like I’ve just recognized a good wine and the sommelier will feel great since he has just served a client very well.
By the way, in case you are not offered to taste different wines before making up your mind, you could ask upfront to taste one or two wines by explaining you are unsure which one you prefer. Again, if the wine is also offered by the glass, there is likely a bottle already open and your sommelier will be happy to let you taste. If the wine is only offered by the bottle, however this might not be a possibility.
OK, so now you’ve ordered your wine. Which means you are halfway through passing as a wine expert.
Here are the final bits you should consider when drinking wine.
How to correctly hold a wine glass
You should always hold the glass by the stem (never by the goblet).
How the wine tastes will depend a lot on the temperature of the wine.
So when you hold the glass by the goblet you are bumping up the temperature of the wine with your body temperature.
The only exception of this rule could be when a wine is served too cold. Even though a restaurant should know the ideal temperature, wines sometimes are served a notch or two to cold. In this case, you could hold the glass by the goblet to warm up the wine before you drink. However, once the wine has reached the optimal temperature, you should revert back holding your glass only be the stem.
Always swirl and smell first
Before you drink – or taste in case you are in a restaurant – your wine, you should always swirl it in your glass.
When a wine is poured from a bottle, it will be ‘tight’, which means it is difficult to smell the various flavours.
Swirling your wine will get more oxygen into your wine which will open the bouquet so you can better detect the flavours.
In fact, that will be the next thing you do. Sniff the wine to pick up its flavours. Don’t exaggerate. No one without years of sommelier practice learning to sniff wines will smell all the flavours even when you sniff it for minutes. Just take one sniff – you might not get the wine has flavours of ripe red fruits and tobacco in it. But you are likely to detect if it smells wrong, i.e. a bit like vinegar or sulphur which would mean the wine in no longer good for drinking.
Finish the swirl and smell process with taking a sip of the wine, which will help you determine if you like it or not; or if something is wrong with it in case you have not sniffed it yet or want an additional confirmation.
And that’s it. You are done. All that is left now is to enjoy your wine (and food).
Are you sometimes feeling overwhelmed ordering wine in a restaurant? How do you disguise you are no wine expert, or are you happy to ask for advice?