As a former wine waiter (Sommelier/Somm) I know a thing or two about ordering wines in restaurants. First and foremost – don’t be scared of us, we only bite when you forget to tip (only kidding, well, kinda).
Tip 1 – Use your Somm
One of the biggest mistakes people make when going to fancy restaurants is not fully utilizing their somm. There are many benefits in getting assistance from your somm. First and foremost, they know the intricacies of the food on the menu and how well they team with the wines on their list.
After all, they have taken quite a lot of time constructing that list, and they assembled it with the type of food they serve. They’ll also be able to tell you about the wine’s history and personality. And if you’re into trying an unusual wine, they can steer you in the direction of unique gems that will make your dining experience all the more exciting.
Tip 2 – Think about food and wine matching and be accommodating
Whether you get help from the somm or not, when perusing the wine list, try and accommodate everyone’s food in the wine selection. If this is impossible because of clashing food styles, try ordering by the glass or buy a couple of bottles to drink over the course of the night. If you land yourself in a restaurant where the staff are barely old enough to drink, let alone recommend a wine to go with your meal, try these pointers.
- Find a link: Between the weight, flavour, texture or intensity of the wine, with that of the food. Poached fish for example is a very light and delicate dish, hence it deserves a light and delicate wine like Riesling. Similarly, a hearty winter stew will sit perfectly with a rich, tannic, full-flavoured red, such as a Shiraz.
- Chilli can be hell to team with wine, but remember this. A fruity wine, with a touch a sweetness will tame the chilli heat.
- Heavily oaked and tannic wines are terrible when matched with chilli or overly spicy foods. The tannins dry the inside of your mouth and expose you to a greater chilli onslaught, ouch!
- If your dish is cream based, find a wine with a higher acid. The acid in the wine cuts through the oiliness of the dish to create a balance.
Tip 3 – Taste the wine when offered
I know a few of you will cringe at the thought of having to taste the wine when it’s offered to you in the restaurant. Many of you probably think it’s a big wank, and to actually go through with the ritual makes you look like a big snob. Remember this – you are not being offered the wine to see if you like it. So don’t say something like, “oh no, I’m sure it tastes lovely,” because at least five per cent of all wines sold with a cork in a restaurant are ‘off’. This is your chance to weed out the bad ones.
You would hate to have your whole restaurant experience ruined because you decided to forego your right to test the wine. These ‘off’ bottles of wine are known as being ‘corked’. As cork is a naturally occurring product, it can sometimes be tainted with a mould that can make the wine smell like wet cardboard (in the most severe cases). A slightly corked wine will merely lessen the wine’s fruit aromas. Either way, you should not be paying good money for this wine.
If you still feel a bit unsure about detecting a faulty wine, it’s perfectly acceptable to have the wine waiter smell the wine for you. Don’t feel embarrassed – it’s their job to look after your wine experience. If the wine is faulty, refuse it and order another one or chose a new wine altogether.
Tip 4 – Taste wines even under screwcaps
Many quality restaurants wines are now being served in screw cap bottles. This is a godsend, trust me. This mere practice is almost eliminating faulty wines, delivering a perfect wine experience every time. So what do you do if you’re offered to taste a wine that has been bottled under a screwcap? You still taste it because while the ‘corked’ element has now been eliminated, there could always be a chance the wine has other faults.
Screwcap are not 100 per cent perfect (the cork manufacturers are probably very happy to hear this). They are a whole lot more reliable then cork however. If the top of the screwcap is damaged in transport it will usually get a ding in it. This can break the seal at the top of the bottle and let air in, oxidising your wine. As a result, the wine will taste flat and dull. This rarely happens however and can usually be detected just by looking at the capsule to see if it is in mint condition. You can also taste if the wine has been heat affected. This is when the wine has been ‘cooked’ in high heat during the transport or storing of the new. It can happen to both screwcap and wines under cork. Smooth and supple reds can become tangy – where tannins and acids become more pronounced. Fruit flavours can also suffer.
Tip 5 – it’s OK to pour your own wine
The simple answer is yes! There is no reason why you should miss out on drinking your wine merely because your waiter is not doing their job properly. Many restaurants are under staffed nowadays to cut mounting costs. It’s now acceptable in many establishments that they will open the wine for you and pour the first round. Then if they get the chance to further top the wine up during the meal, consider yourself lucky. These restaurants will usually leave the wine on the table.
If you are at a swanky restaurant and the waiter has taken the wine off the table and either placed it in a bucket or on a side table, you have my permission to embarrass them if they forget to top up your glass. If you cannot get anyone’s attention to pour your wine, wait for the manager to be in eyeshot, excuse yourself from your dinner guests, stand up, retrieve the wine and pour it yourself. The manager will feel like they have the worse restaurant in the world and will offer you free desert and coffees.
If you don’t feel like being that dramatic (which is probably 95 per cent of you) walk up to the Manager and ask them to pour your wine because you feel like you are being neglected. If you do this, the manager will feel it is his or her responsibility for the rest of the night to ensure you have perfect service. Either way – you win.
Tip 6 – start with an aperitif
A pre-dinner drink has a purpose, believe it or not. It should be relatively ‘drying’, so that it sweeps away the flavours of the day and prepares your palate for the fantastic meal that awaits. That means ordering a dry vodka or gin Martini (it’s not wine, but I’ll allow it), a glass of Champagne, dry white wine or dry Fino Sherry (don’t worry, drinking Sherry is cool again). So if you want to play by the rules, do not order that sweet cocktail I know you’re secretly craving! Save that for later at the bar.