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It is a fact of life, if one wishes to dine at an uppity restaurant, wine is on the order; upon arrival, the waiter will hand you the often dreaded wine menu. Everyone knows that white wines go with fish and light foods while reds go with meat and pasta, but any upscale restaurant will have at least ten selections of each, leaving most people guessing. One path of action is to blindly ask the waiter what goes with the meal, but this node isn't about that... so let's get to it:


Years

Varies from region to region, but the following three are key years:
  • 1967 (French Wines)
  • 1995 (for Italian wines)
  • 1997 (Record year everywhere)


Remarkable Vineyards

France
  • Bouchard Pere & Fils
  • Louis Latour
California
  • Lolonis
  • Haywood

Australia

  • Yalumba

New Zealand

  • Te Mata

Italy

  • Sportoletti
  • Arnaldo Caprai


Aspects

Tastes vary, of course, so you might be better off asking for a recommendation after describing what you want.

  • Dryness denotes the sweetness of the wine, which can be a result of many things. For example, in the minute qualities present in wine, alcohol has a sweet taste; the fruit extract in Australian wines and Chardonnay also has a sweet taste to it. Dryness is directly linked to higher levels of tannin and acidity, which occurs with longer aging times.
  • Intensity Wines, like all other foods and beverages, can range in intensity from terribly boring to overpowering. A wine should complement the food it accompanies, unless it is drunken on its own.
  • The Body of the wine is nothing more than its consistancy. This is credited to alcohol and dissolved grape abstract, older wines have more.
    The legs of the wine indicate the amount of body present. To see this phenomenon, take the glass in your hand and apply a slight wrist turning, which will cause the wine to rise on the sides and turn in a circular manner. Stop twisting it, and watch the wine run down the sides. You should see small lines forming where the wine is running down, the smaller the lines, the better the wine - as a rule of thumb, white wines will form legs more readily than reds. Thickness of the legs indicate the amount of body a wine has. If there are no legs, it is most likely a sibling of Perth Pink.

  • Tartness is a result of Acidity, which originally is determined by the grapes used. Many processes, however, modulate acidity to their preferences.
  • Complexity When I failed to find words to describe this, Peter Granoff said that wines are like music - "some are a one-note melody, some a three-piece jazz combo and some a symphony." The more you can taste the individiual factors in the wine, the more complexity it has. The downside is usually the price.
  • Tannin gives wine its bitter flavor, especially if the wine in question is red. At extremes it can be mouth-drying, to any degree it is a critical component of any red wine. FYI, it originates from the grapes skins and seeds as well as the barrel's wood.
  • Wine derives much of it's character from oak, as in the component of the barrel it is stored in. Hard to describe, the actual flavor (burnt, creamy, cinnamon) originates from the wooden boards. This is neccessary, but should not overpower the rest of the factors.
  • Oh, and guys - Always pour the wine for thelady.

    What I did not know, I shamefully drew from http://www.winespectator.com and http://www.wine.com


    ...will pour a taste of the wine for the person who ordered it
    Not for this thing to go off on such a tangent, but I was basing this on the chauvenist assumption that it was the man who ordered the wine - nothing too far fetched, I believe, if there is only one bottle being shared.

    A note on the tasting of wine
    I don't think I implied that anywhere, seemed too obvious. - thank you for adding it though.

Oh, and guys - Always pour the wine for the lady.

Er, no. Most upscale and even middle of the road restaurants these days will pour a taste of the wine for the person who ordered it, male or female - unlike old fashioned times when it was always the man. So, even if it was a joint decision but the woman happened to ask for the bottle, she will most likely be the one presented with it to inspect the label etc. She is now the bottle "owner", as it were, and it would be considered quite rude to snatch up the bottle and pour her wine for her.

Anyway, in really nice restaurants, the waiting staff will hover round you ready to refill your glass - so it's not much of a problem.

A note on the tasting of wine - it's not to determine whether you like it or not. It's just to make sure it's not off. So if you order an expensive bottle of wine and, having tasted it, you hate it, don't send it back. It's a loss for the restaurant, and even though most good ones will swallow the bitter pill, it's not fair to saddle them with the cost of one's ignorance...

A few thoughts here, if I may:

If you're choosing a wine in a restaurant, you'll need first to decide whether to buy an entire bottle or get wine by the glass.

  1. If you know what you want, get it. I guess that goes without saying, but I include it here for logical completeness.
  2. Otherwise, you will have to decide whether you want to buy a glass of wine or a whole bottle. I find that a glass will do fine over the course of a meal, so if you are dining as a couple you may want to go by-the-glass. This is usually better than having leftover wine; and if you want more you can always get a glass of another type afterward, thereby trying out more wines than you would if you got an entire bottle. The individual glass option is good if you and your date have differing ideas on wine, but the number of wines to choose from will likely be small.
  3. If you have a party of several people, buy wine by the bottle. It will be cheaper overall and you'll look more like a big shot. You will have to sift through numerous possibilities, but if you make a good pick people will tend to think of you as a wine expert thereafter.
OK, smart guy, what do I choose? Your taste (and that of your guest or guests) should be the key--whether you're buying a wine at a restaurant or getting one for a dinner at home with friends. I've found that people that are not normally wine drinkers prefer white wine, because it's cool (-->serve white wines cool, but not cold) and generally light-bodied. Plus, though the rule is "white wine with fish," white wines really go with everything.

If you go the white route, get a white with an intensity of flavor that is comparable to your dish. Three major white varieties you may encounter are:

There are, of course, other types of white wines, but these are the big three (well, maybe not Pinot Grigio, but it is in my book).

Some people like rosé or "blush" wines. I'm not their biggest fan, but they're nice and cool and easy to drink, so if you're in the mood, go for it. I find these are more often sippin' wines, rather than ones to accompany a meal, but again this is a taste issue. White Zinfandel (though the wine itself is pink) is a big one in this class.

If you're getting/cooking something involving meat, I'd definitely go with a red wine. Red wine rocks, though it's not really to everyone's taste. It's generally served just below room temperature, so it can seem warm. And it does need protein-oriented food to go along with it, as red wines can have lots of tannins--these are chemical compounds which give the wine its flavor, but can give the wine a bitter taste if it is served too cool or warm, or if they are not offset with meat.

If you go the red route, get a red (again) with an intensity of flavor that is comparable to your dish. Three major red varieties you may encounter are:

But how do I sift through all these names? Some don't even say what kind of wine they are! Oy gevalt! OK, now that you know the general type of wine you want, here are some rules of thumb to narrow your choices:

  1. Buy a domestic wine, generally from California French and Italian wines are great (my favorite wine is from Portugal), but the way they label wines is really messed up. If you buy a US wine, it will say "Chardonnay," and you'll know that that's what you're getting. You won't need to know that a wine from St. Emilion is actually a Merlot from Bordeaux and the word "cru" will happily stay out of your vocabulary (for now...).
  2. If you're trying to impress, for God's sake don't spend less than $10 on a bottle! There are a lot of great cheap wines (I recently bought a case of a $7 wine that I love), but there are also many, many really bad cheap wines. The $10 limit is a good cutoff. Conversely, you will not need to spend more than about $25 (even in a restaurant) to get a pretty good bottle of wine. You don't want to spend $100 unless you know a lot about what you're ordering.
  3. Don't flip out about the year or "vintage." It never rains in California (or so says the song), so therefore every year (with few exceptions) is pretty good. Older is generally better, but also more expensive. Three years old is pretty good for a red, but whites should generally be drunk young--as young as one year.

And now a few tips on how to drink the wine you've been served:

  • Don't sniff the cork. This will not tell you anything. Sniff the wine to see if it smells like cork. If it does, send it back.
  • Grasp the glass by the stem, not by the bowl. This will help to keep the wine from warming up too much.
  • Always offer a toast.
  • Drink that nectar down and enjoy!

Back to Rook's Wine Reviews


A comment has been made that, as E2 is an international community, California wines are to many foreign wines. This certainly does complicate matters. The best I can do with limited space and time is to offer the follwing conversion table:

Red Burgundy = Pinot Noir
White Burgundy = Chardonnay
Red Bordeaux = Cabernet Sauvignon with two exceptions:
-->Wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol = Merlot
White Bordeaux = Sauvignon Blanc

Most Italian wines have some component of Sangiovese. Barolos and Barbarescos the notable exceptions. Also Dolcettos and Barberas and Montepulcianos and Valpolicellas. Hell, just stay away from Italy until you get the hang of things.


It has also been pointed out that many restaurants offer half-bottles or carafes of wine. These are quite convenient if there's just a couple of you eating. A local restaurant here can bring you wine in either a small or large ceramic chicken. Just order the size wine you think you'll consume.

And a further note on by-the-glass wine buying--just because only a few options may be available doesn't mean they are bad wines. I've had some good ones through this method. It's true that the best wine on any winelist is not likely to be offered by the glass, but there's no sense in buying a $40 bottle if you aren't going to finish it.

By the glass? The standard is for the restaurant to offer only a few wines by the glass - most of the wines they have (especially the good ones), will be by the bottle only.

Sadly, after plenty of practice, I subscribe to the opinion that there is no short cut to picking good wine. Why would there be such Kudos about being able to do so if there was a secret trick? (like the secret tricks revealed in 'how to pick up women', and similar impossible enterprises).

So... its practice, practice, practice. You'lll pay 1/3 to 1/2 the price at the store for a good bottle of wine - I recommend buying good wine to drink at home maybe once a week - try something new each time - try something else from the same vinyard as another wine you likes and explore the similarities - buy several wines made from the same grape and compare. Enjoy the process rather than aiming for an 'end result' (ie, appearing to know what you're doing in a restaurant), and you'll find yourself sitting in a restaurant in a few years time and knowing what half the wines on the menu will likely taste like - and hence be able to match them to the food - and hopefully impress your date (or was it the waiter you were trying to impress?).

Ask for the sommelier or head waiter (or your own waiter, pending your best judgment based on your interactions) to choose for you based on the dishes you've decided to order. He (or she) will have tasted all the wines, will be familiar with the idiosyncracies of the chef, and will gladly to his (or her) job if asked nicely. Even if you recognize (and have enjoyed) a number of the wines on the wine list, it's quite impossible for you to be privy to the general insights and specific knowledge of the headwaiter. Do not ask the maitre d'hotel; that would be equivalent to asking the current American president to explain an arcane point of environmental policy, and you will simply end up with the most expensive bottle of wine he can think of at the moment.

It is a sign of wisdom to admit ignorance. It is a sign of foolishness to pretend wisdom. Being presented with the wine list is not an endorsement of your ability to choose well, it is an endorsement of your ability to choose to have someone else choose for you. A fine point, it must be conceded, but one that is important if one really insists on spending anywhere from $50-$200 for a bottle or two of wine with dinner and doesn't wish to be underwhelmed or disappointed.

Also, the trust and respect you accord the sommelier (or head waiter) with your request is the coin by which you acquire their goodwill. I've never been disappointed by this method.


Addendum for men seeking to impress their date with their amazing wine choosing abilities: 1) if you choose badly, and you may, that kind of defeats the purpose. 2) if you have the savoir faire to ask for the sommelier to choose for you (without sounding like a pompous bossy-boo) that's far more impressive than what I guarantee you will be a completely transparent slideshow of emotions playing across your face while you "choose" - panic, craftiness, pretend pensiveness, etc. - that will simply amuse most women, and 3) it's like asking for directions. A sign of having transcended your baser caveman Y-chromosome handicap impulses, and thus a sign that you might be a reasonably good lover. Ergo: ASK.

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