Ordering wine in a restaurant is something we get asked often. It’s all too easy to be handed a complicated-looking wine list, panic and order a glass of Malbec or something safe. Trust us, we’ve been there. So without further ado, here’s a handy guide to ordering wine at a restaurant.
Giving people the power and the know-how to order wine in a restaurant was one of the reasons the Wine List started out. Back in the early days of Josh’s Wine List, Josh put together a four-part series on how to make sense of a wine lists at a restaurant. With restaurants and bars currently closed for lockdown 3.0, we thought now would be a good time to revisit this topic. When places reopen, you'll be ready to order from the menu.
By the Glass
In most restaurants these days, you’ll find two wine lists; ‘by the glass’ list, and a longer list of bottles. We’re going to focus on wines by the glass, as this is a good starting point for those wanting to up their wine knowledge.
Ordering ‘by the glass’ is a great way to discover new grapes or regions you’re unfamiliar with. Purposefully choose something you don’t know. Make a few notes of what the wine was like; whether you’d have it again, that sort of thing.
Most restaurants tend to have a good ‘by the glass’ selection, so this is a great place to start. It’s worth noting too that restaurants with more of a wine focus are likely going to have a longer ‘by the glass’ list.
When it comes to pricing, there are generally two models that restaurants follow. You’ll either find that the retail price of a wine is multiplied, or a fixed price is added onto the price of a bottle. To get an idea of how this works in practice, check out a restaurant’s wine list online and compare the price of a bottle to its retail value.
There’s often a lot of judgement surrounding the cheapest wines on the wine list. For the price they are, they’re probably not very good - right? Wrong. If you’re at a decent restaurant, they will take pride in the wine on offer. It’s worth noting too that most people will order from the cheaper end of the menu. So, more attention will go into the cheaper wine offerings.
It goes without saying that you’re going to spend more on wine in a restaurant than you would do at home. What you can do, though, is be prepared. Check the wine list in advance to work out the price mark up. Figure out your spending limit and ask for recommendations within your budget.
The tradition of tasting dates back to a time when off bottles of wine were a lot more common than they are today. Bottling is better these days, and many bottles have screw tops instead (eradicating the risk of the infamous cork taint.) So why do we still taste wine when it arrives at the table? Part of it is ritual.
You might think the tasting ritual is pointless, but the tradition of it is part of the pleasure. You can also take a rational approach to this and do the following:
- Check the bottle: Is it what you ordered? Does the vintage match up? Is within the correct price bracket you chose?
- Check the temperature: Touch the bottle or check the temperature in your mouth. Red wine shouldn’t be served at a summer’s room temperature. If it’s too hot it will taste more alcoholic and flatter.
- Check if it’s off: Sniff before swirling. Swirling brings out the wine’s pleasant aromas, so a pre-swirl sniff will alert you do any offness.
If it smells of cardboard, mould or vinegar, there might be an issue. Raise it. Ask: “Is this wine supposed to taste like this, as it’s a bit vinegary/fizzy/cardboardy”.
Some wine, especially natural wine, does have imperfections. And though this is mostly a ritual for 99% of wine you’ll order, run through this checklist to be sure.
What do you actually order? This is probably the most important thing you can learn. Here are three tips to keep in mind.
Ask for a recommendation. Prepare a sentence or two for the waiter about the wines you like. You don’t need to give detailed tasting notes. Something like, “I like full bodied whites” or, “I prefer meaty reds”. That should be enough to give your waiter some insight. Note a specific region that you’re in the mood for. Asking for “something interesting” is always a good way to try something new.
Vivino the list. The Vivino app has a wine list scanner which gives you ratings for each bottle. When it works, this function is a great way to make sense of a list. But bear in mind that it can be a bit temperamental depending on the lighting or specificity of the list. It’s worth noting too that ratings don’t always count for something. Especially if you’ve got a certain wine in mind. A 4.1 star Nebbiolo means nothing if you want something light and elegant.
Choose something yourself. The final option. Take a stab at the list, based off the learnings and notes you’ve made over time. Work from there, and build up your knowledge.
Now, you're ready to head to a restaurant (when they're open), equipped with the knowledge and confidence to order wine. If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye out for future handy guides from the Wine List...
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