One of the reasons we like to eat out is that there’s something special about sitting down at table, ordering a dish and then seeing it appear a few minutes later…at least you hope it’s a few minutes later.
But not all aspects of eating in a restaurant are a pleasure for everyone. This is especially true when it come to ordering wine. Many people are still a bit unsure and nervous at carrying out this little chore.
Yet it needn’t be an ordeal if we learn a few basic facts and reactions. Indeed, with a little knowledge ordering wine can also be one of the pleasures of eating out.
One of the first things to remember is that in most restaurants the waiter knows as much (or as little) as we do. So don’t be afraid of him (or her) — and do not hesitate to disagree when it comes down to a matter of opinion and personal taste.
Those who know nothing about wine (but know what they like) could choose those wines with which they are familiar. Playing safe when buying wine in a shop or ordering it in a restaurant is one way out, but you’ll never get to taste a wine that is different — and which appeals very much to your palate.
So when there’s an unfamiliar wine you fancy ask the waiter to tell you something about it. In most places his knowledge will be limited, but he should at least know something about the wines on the list.
Never let a waiter bully you into ordering a wine you don’t want. Surprisingly enough, that is a frequent occurrence, especially at places with up-market pretensions.
If you want a young red with a white fish, an arrogant waiter may suggest you’d be better off with a white. Politely, but firmly, say you prefer a young red with that particular dish.
If you want to try a Ribera del Duero, say, but do not recognise any of the names on the list, the waiter should be of some help. But rather than ask him to recommend one, first select a couple at the prices you prefer to pay, and ask about them: some Ribera del Duero wines are expensive. If you don’t make a pre-selection, the waiter could suggest the dearer ones. He’s certainly not going to recommend the most economical one.
If you are offered a wine you can’t afford, don’t be afraid to say so. I know some seriously rich people who never pay more than €25 for a red: they prefer to buy expensive wines at shop prices and drink them at home with family and friends.
The wealthiest person in my circle of friends and acquaintances always drinks the house wine if its from a reasonably reliable area. But at home he thinks nothing of opening a €3,000 (shop price) bottle of Château Lafite if the occasion calls for it.
The best advice I can offer about ordering wine in the average goodish restaurant is to stay away from the old ones — and that includes crianzas (wines aged in oak) that are more than three years old. Very few middle-of-the-road places store their wines at the proper controlled temperature, so any bottle that has passed the three year mark could easily be well and truly over the top.
I once asked to see a wine I didn’t know and when I picked up the bottle to look at the reverse label, it was quite warm. It turned out that the wine rack was kept near a source of heat — a sure way of speeding up its use-by date.
These days I always look for young reds (those of the previous year) that have been aged in oak for 3-8 months. Even when kept in deplorable conditions they will still be drinkable.
Once you have ordered a wine you are then faced with what most people consider to be the worst part of the ordeal: that of tasting it and giving your approval.
Many people just take a sip and quickly give the OK with a nod and an embarrassed smile. That is one way out and it is painless.
But doing the tasting bit properly is really quite easy — and it can be done in such a way that you can make yourself look like a real expert.
When the waiter has poured a little of the red, pick up the glass without swirling it and take a good look at the colour.
Connoisseurs hold the glass against a white table cloth, a napkin or a white plate, so see it more clearly.
If the wine has a bright sharp colour that’s a good sign because it indicates there should be little wrong with it.
But if it has a thickish brick-like colour round the rim that could be a sign it is past its best. (This brickish rim is common in Mallorcan reds but is not an indication of an inferior wine).
You now sniff the wine but without swirling the glass, an important step to remember. What you are looking for, whether you are an expert or a complete novice, is unpleasant smells of any kind.
If the aromas are fresh and fruity (and they will be if it’s a Ribera del Duero) and make you want to lift the glass to your lips, the wine will also taste of fresh red fruit.
You now swirl the glass for the first time and sniff again. Now comes the touch that will make you look like a connoisseur: having confirmed that the swirled wine smells right, look up at the waiter and give your approval with a confident nod.
If the waiter asks if you want to taste it, you say (nonchalantly) there’s no need to sip the wine because it will taste as good as it smells.
If the aromas have some defects, tell the waiter the wine doesn’t smell quite right and that you’ll leave it for a few minutes before tasting it.
At this stage some wines, especially the older ones, are said to be ‘closed’ and need to react with the air’s oxygen to open them up.
If the wine hasn’t opened up after eight minutes or so, either you or the waiter should suggest decanting it, a quick way of aerating it. If it still doesn’t taste right you should reject it.
However, you won’t run into this problem if you stick to wines of the year (you should now be looking for wines made with the 2020 harvest grapes) especially those that have been barrel-aged for a few months. And, of course, they should be drunk sooner rather than later.