Navigating a restaurant wine list can be a daunting task. Many times customers flip through pages and pages of wines searching for a bottle that looks or sounds familiar. Other times the selection is so limited that it comes down to choosing a red or white to go with your dinner. Knowing a few basics about wine lists makes selecting a wine an enjoyable start to your evening. Plus, you'll choose a wine that pairs nicely with your dinner.
Red Wine List
Almost every restaurant or bar offers a red wine list. Look for well-known grape varieties when selecting a wine and consider your food pairing before making a final selection. Consider Cabernet Sauvignon if you prefer bold, powerful wines. These taste like herbs, cedar and black fruits, but pair nicely with beef and lamb. Merlot is less intense, tasting like plums and mocha. Popular pairings include duck, grilled dishes and some seafood. Pinot Noir is a good wine for those just starting to drink red wine. It's light, tasting like cherries, cola and strawberries. Ideal pairings include pork and seafood. Syrah pairs well with stews, ethnic dishes and chicken. Flavors you'll taste in a Syrah include blackberries, spice and plums.
White Wine List
Move over to the white wine list if you prefer something lighter, crisper or with more acidity. Try a California Chardonnay if you prefer oaky, buttery and tropical fruit flavors. Consider a white Burgundy, made from the Chardonnay grape, if you prefer less oak and more acidity. Chardonnay pairs nicely with strong cheese and chicken. Pick a Sauvignon Blanc for a punch of acidity and flavors of citrus and herbs. These are a nice match with salads and seafood. Rieslings are tricky because they are made in a variety of styles. Check the alcohol by volume: the lower the number, the sweeter the wine. It's not exact, but it can give you a hint to the sweetness of the Riesling. These wines taste like green apples, apricots and flowers. Pair a Riesling with ethnic foods, fish and cheese.
Dessert Wine List
Select a dessert wine to bring the meal to a close. All dessert wines are sweet and rich so a single serving by the glass is ideal. Consider a port paired with dark chocolates or poached pairs. A Pedro Ximénez Sherry makes a nice topping for vanilla ice cream or along side desserts with dried fruits. Try a late harvest Riesling with fruit tarts or crème brûlée. The famed Sauternes, from France, pairs nicely with Roquefort cheese, caramel or fruit tarts.
Old World vs. New World
Looking at a wine list you may notice that some of the wines are sorted by grape varietal and others by location. Sorting wines in this manner can make choosing a wine even more confusing. However, it's common in Old World countries like France and Italy to classify wines by region instead of grape varietal. This classification is carried over to restaurant menus since these wines are often a blend of several different grape varieties. New World areas like the United States and South America classify wine by the grape type instead of location.
Wine By the Glass
Consider ordering wine by the glass. Many wine lists offer customers a few selections by the glass. Ordering a glass of wine allows a customer to try something new or experiment with something they may not otherwise purchase. Selections are often limited, but it cuts out having to decipher the wine list. Keep in mind that wines by the glass are marked up substantially. This covers the restaurant's risk of opening a bottle and not having another customer order the wine, leading to a wasted bottle.
- Marie Claire: A Guide to Wine Types
- The Only Wine Book You'll Ever Need; Danny May; 2004.
- Windows on the World Complete Wine Course; Kevin Zraly; 2008.
- Photo Credit Photo Credit: Andrzej Gdula, http://www.sxc.hu/photo/961450