How to Order Wine in a Restaurant
- Learn the key consideration factors when deciding which wine to order
- Know what to do when the sommelier present you the bottle
- Learn when to send a bottle back.
- When deciding what to order, consider the palate preference of your guests, the moods of the evening, the pairing compatibility, the budget, and the quality of the wine. Ask few specific questions that can help you decide (see practical tips below)
- When the sommelier present the bottle you order, check the producer, the appellation / village /, and the vintage.
- The sommelier will open the wine, set the cork in front of you, and pour you a small tasting sample. Do not smell the cork. Give the glass a gentle swirl. Take a clean sniff to ensure the wine is not corked or oxidized.
- If clean, give it a generous sip. Consider if the wine is served at the optimal temperature, and if it would benefit from aeration.
- Be cautious when ordering a mature bottle. If it is past prime, the nicer restaurants will take it back. Many restaurants, however, would not.
What Wine to Order?
Ordering wine in a restaurant can be fun instead of intimidating. Here are few consideration factors and some practical tips:
Key consideration factors:
- What is the occassion? Celebration could begin with a champagne.
- What type of the cuisine / dishes are your guests ordering? White wine is a friendlier pairing partner if you are at a seafood restaurant. Red wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon would be a friendlier pariing partner if you are at a steakhouse.
- What is your budget and how many bottles will you be ordering? Planning ahead is important. If you think your guests will go through 2+ bottles, do you want to start with a white? When it comes to ordering, the second wine should be fuller bodied and more complex than the last wine.
- Is this a good producer and a "safe" vintage? Choosing a good producer increases the chance of choosing a bottle that tastes delicious. A safe vintage means try to avoid bottles that are too mature as there is a high likelihood of it being past prime or oxidized. While most michelin star restaurants store their wines in proper condition, many restaurants store their wines vertically and in room temperature... which means a higher likelihood of an oxidized, mature wine.
Practical tips -- If you need help on which bottle to order, below are example of practical questions to ask. The key is be specific so the sommelier gives you a solid answer instead of an entertaining one.
- Have you tasted this wine before? How would you describe the body of this bottle -- light, medium or full?
- What are the grape varietals for this wine? Does it go well with the dishes we are ordering?
- Is this white wine oaked? (An oak white would not go well with raw seafood)
- If a mature vintage, is this bottle fully developed? Any risk of it being past prime? (This is important so you have higher chance of returning a bottle if it is past-prime).
- If you are ordering a bottle that is a house wine, ask the sommelier if you can taste a little before you order a bottle. Usually they let you do that.
Last but not least, for business or important dinners, you can always plan ahead. Call the restaurant ahead of time and ask them to send you their wine list. Do your research on these wines, pick few options, making sure there is a back-up plan. Often the wine menus are not updated in time, vintage changes and the wines you want could be unavailable.
What to do?
When the sommelier present the bottle in front of you, check that it is the wine you have ordered. Is it the right producer, appellation / field, and vintage?
With your approval, the sommelier will then open the bottle, lay the cork in front of you, and pour you a small tasting glass.
Do not smell the cork. It does not tell you if the wine is faulty or not. Instead give the glass a gentle swirl, and do the clean test (refer to the wine tasting lesson).
Return the bottle if it is corked or oxidized. It is estimated that 3-5% of the wines in this world is corked. Probability is not high, but still there.
As for oxidization, it could happen with mature wines especially those with poor storage conditions. Sign of possible oxidation -- if the color of the wine is unusally brown; if the cork is utterly dry and cracked at opening.
If the wine is good, check if the serving condition is optimal. Give it another swirl, sniff, and a generous sip. Remember there is an optimal temperature for each type of wine and many wines could benefit from aeration. (refer to the serving wine lesson).
In short, three questions to ask yourself:
1. Is it clean? No notes of cardboxes (corked) or sherry (oxidation)?
2. Is it at the perfect temperature? Do you want an ice bucket to chill the wine?
3. Does it require decanting? Does it feel tight and closed?
Interesting Knowledge...Excessive sulfur could be a fault as well, though not as common as an oxidized or corked wine. If you smell intense, offensive notes of rotten eggs, do return the bottle.