Esquire's Cheat Sheet to Ordering Wine in a Restaurant
So you’ve decided to splurge on dinner at a fancy restaurant. But even for the most seasoned foodies, the sight of a six-page wine list can be rather daunting. That’s why we’ve asked Cecile Mauricio, wine consultant at Chateau 1771 and food and beverage director/sommelier at Lemuria Gourmet Restaurant, for pointers on how to order wine like you know what you're talking about.
1| Do your homework.
The best way to avoid getting intimidated by an extensive wine list is to look it up beforehand. Ask the restaurant to send you their catalogue. That way, you’re familiar with the prices.
“You should be confident enough to say, ‘These are the price points I’m comfortable with. Nothing beyond P2,000 for a bottle of wine,’” Cecile says. For her, the mark of a good restaurant is whether it has a wide price range, from inexpensive to expensive. “Just because it's inexpensive doesn’t mean the wine is bad. It just means the sommelier took great pains to research the market on the availability of this type of wine and the accessible price points.”
Find out what kind of wine you like, since this will help your server recommend one that you’ll really enjoy. Are you into white or red? Sweet, or dry? Light, or full-bodied? Drop by the restaurant and taste a few wines before a major occasion, say, a date, or hit the supermarket and buy a couple of bottles. If you’re not a big wine drinker, sweet grape varieties like Moscato or Riesling are a safe bet (if you decide to go with a Riesling, specify that you want a slightly sweet one, since there are dry Rieslings as well).
2| When in doubt, ask for the house pour.
House pours are wines the restaurant offers by the glass or carafe. This way, you’re not stuck with a whole bottle if the wine you ordered isn’t quite to your taste. Although, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll dislike the house pour—sommeliers know that most people will be ordering by the glass or the carafe, so they tend to select crowd-pleasers that are easy on the wallet.
“One of the benchmarks of a good restaurant is the quality of their house wines,” Cecile says. “The house pours are the ones they take very good care of because they can’t be bad, or else it impacts the image of the restaurant.”
A rule of thumb for house pours is that the bottles should be freshly opened; a recent vintage is also better. “Wines do have a shelf life, and there are wines that you can keep and open after several years, and there are wines that are meant for immediate consumption. Your house wines, accessibly priced—which means they’re below P1,000—will fall into that category,” Cecile explains. “For example, if you’re ordering now, whether it’s white wine, red wine, or rosé, you’d like for it to be 2016.
3| Know your etiquette.
Hold the glass by the stem to avoid warming the wine with your hand, and toast by clinking your glasses belly-to-belly, not rim-to-rim. “Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if when you toast, you break the glass? The most fragile part is the lip, and the strongest part would be the bowl or what we call the belly. Clinking belly-to-belly is safer, and it sounds better,” Cecile says.
Remember as well that once your vino is poured, you can’t return it just because you don’t like the way it tastes. When the waiter offers you a tasting portion before pouring the full glass, he’s doing it for you to check the quality of the wine, not to see whether you like it or not. That’s why it’s important to know your preferences and communicate them with your server.
You can tell if your wine is expired or not by sniffing it—if it smells vinegar-y or unpleasant in any way, it’s probably over the hill. Cecile also suggests using the Vivino app (free on the App Store and Google Play Store) and using it to scan the wine label, or even the whole wine list. The app pulls up tasting notes and reviews from wine enthusiasts from all over the world.
Another option is to visit a restaurant with an enomatic machine, like Chateau 1771. An enomatic preserves open wine bottles and dispenses tasting, half-glass, and full-glass portions like a vending machine. You’ll still need to pay about P90 to P120 for the tasting portions. But the advantage is that you and your date can go on a wine-tasting flight, then get a glass of the one you enjoyed the most, rather than having to commit to a full glass or carafe. You can even make conversation out of it by comparing your favorites with hers.
4| Over the course of the meal, progress from light to heavy wine. Pair light food with light wine, and heavy food with heavy wine.
There are many factors that go into wine pairings, such as flavor, acidity, et cetera. But the most basic rule of thumb is to pair light with light and heavy with heavy. That’s the reasoning behind having white wine with fish, and red wine with meat. This also why, contrary to popular belief, white wine goes much better with cheese than red does.
According to Cecile, the idea of serving red wine with cheese originated in France, when cheese came at the end of the meal. By this time diners had had red wine to go with their main course, which was probably meat. So the idea was to just have whatever you were already drinking with cheese. It wasn’t about pairing at all, but progressing from light to heavy wine. But none of these are hard and fast rules. Cecile says some of her customers love red wine so much, they don’t mind breaking the rules and having it with oysters.
“When you do a wine pairing, you don’t have to stew about it. Because when you get too caught up in the pairing, you lose the enjoyment. Dear Lord, we’re just eating and drinking, so drink what you want with whatever it is you’re eating.”
5| Don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Remember, the sommelier is there to help you out, and a man who isn’t afraid to ask questions is far more attractive than one who pretends to know it all when he actually doesn’t. Ask the wine steward for wine pairing recommendations or tasting notes on a bottle you’re interested in. If she mentions a term you’re unfamiliar with, ask her what she means. You and your date will both learn something new.
7| Be adventurous.
You can impress your date by going beyond the familiar Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Cecile recommends looking out for uncommon white wines like Torrontés, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and Grüner Veltliner. If you’re more of a red wine kind of guy, try a Carménère, Malbec, Tannat, or Grenache. And if your date went particularly well, you can ask for the wine label or bottle as a souvenir.