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Ordering wine at a restaurant: a modern cheat sheet

It used to be so easy. White wine with fish, red wine with meat. Yes, I’ll have a glass of Merlot and she’ll have a glass of Chardonnay. Oh, a bottle? I’ll have that tried and true name from Napa Valley that my parents enjoyed as well.

Today’s wine reality turns this on its head, and thank the wine gods for that. 

With better wine than ever being made in every corner of the globe, combined with sommeliers and beverage directors that are adventurous (read: wanting to stand out in the crowd) and consumers that are more open to asking questions, we are in the heyday of wine programs.

Which causes a problem. When the restaurant is busy, or your server is the newest to join their team, or it’s too noisy to hear their description of the wine from Cahors (“Did they say Malbec? Isn’t that from Argentina?”), what tricks can you use to get the wine you want

First, the fundamental question: do you trust the restaurant? Do you trust the server? Is there a manager or sommelier that you can talk to? If the answer to any of these is yes, then read on. If the answer is no, then a far different list of suggestions is needed.

Why is trust so important here? Because you’re going to learn how to order wine based on taste profile instead of variety.

Here’s the deal: the quality of wine available has never been better. The variety of wine available has never been more vast. And many of the best wines available by the glass or as affordable bottles on wine lists are from the obscure corners of recognition.

Sit down at The Best Wine Bar In The World and ask for a Chardonnay and guess what you’ll get? A Chardonnay. It might be outstanding or it might be sub par (at many restaurants the ‘common’ varietals are higher margin items simply knowing that many people will blindly order it). On top of that it might be $15 a glass. 

But change the game by talking in terms of flavor profile. Ask for an affordable fuller bodied wine that has a bit of acidity to it, to pair well with your lobster appetizer. Rather than the Chardonnay you might get an incredible Godello from Spain, with texture and vitality that would put most Chardonnay to shame. Oh, and by the way, you might pay only $6 for that (better) wine.

So here is the foolproof method (assuming you trust the restaurant staff to know their stuff). We’re going to start with the big picture and move into a specific flavor profile, where you’ll find the wine you are looking for, even if you didn’t know it existed. Four questions is all it takes.

#1: Dry White, Sweeter White, Red, Sparkling, or Rosé?

It really is a personal preference, and one that can be based on what you’re eating as well. I would assume that of these five choices you know generally what you’re looking for. Don’t fuss too much with worrying about the perfect food and wine pairing at this moment, for that will resolve itself as we go down the list.

#2 Light, Medium, or Full Bodied?

This is where your food pairing ideas start to be developed (or, again, just go with personal preference). A trick in the food and wine pairing alchemy is to pair like bodied wines with like bodied foods. A delicate shrimp appetizer with a micro green salad and a touch of citrus would not be happy with a loud, smoky, okay wine be it white or red. Conversely, a butter drenched lobster with dusted with edgy African spices would destroy a delicate Sauvignon Blanc. So pair the body of the wine with the body (richness) of the food.

#3 Modern styled or traditional? (Or another way of putting it, fruit driven or earthy?)

This used to the be known as the “New World vs. Old World” question, but it’s no longer that simple as some European producers have embraced bombastic, heady, rich, higher alcohol wines while some of their counterparts in California are finding nuance, delicacy, and lower alcohols. So now the question is one of style, not location: Modern vs. Traditional (as opposed to California vs. Europe).

The basic difference is this: Modern styled wines tend to be fruit driven, concentrated, louder in personality, more immediately impactful, and higher in alcohol. They tend to shout out of the glass, calling for attention. Some are extreme, such as meeting somebody with a bit too much plastic surgery or a loud personality. However, in the right situation, with the right foods, in the right mood, these can be damn fun wines. Yes, most of them come from Australia, California, and South America, but we are also seeing this style come from some producers in Europe. To repeat: this is no longer a question of geography.

Traditionally styled wines tend to be more nuanced, earthy, terroir-driven (sense of place), lower alcohol, at times shy (waiting for you to come to the glass rather than shouting for attention), and dare I say it: complex. With traditionally styled wines there is a sense of place, a sense of kinship with a wider variety of foods, and often times more acidity in its backbone, which brings us to our next question.

#4 Lower Acidity or Higher Acidity?

Acid is the magic bullet when it comes to food and wine pairings. A wine with acidity, when swished around in your mouth, will activate your acid receptors located on the inside of your cheeks back by your molars. Imagine a mouthful of lemonade, and you push it around in your mouth. Feel it? Now swallow the lemonade. Just by reading about it you now feel your mouth salivating at the point of your acid receptors. Pretty cool trick, eh?

So now imagine this: a perfectly cooked piece of a perfectly fresh and delicious salmon, perched at the end of your fork. It’s steaming and smells incredible, straight from the sea. It’s barely and beautifully cooked. You take the bite, savoring the release of the fish oils that coat the inside of your mouth while you close your eyes and roll your head and make yummy noises that the rest of the table can hear. 

And then have a sip of whole milk.

When you have oily or buttery or fatty dishes with a drink that is low in acidity, they drive both of their flavors down. Suddenly the milk tastes like fish. Suddenly the fish doesn’t have the same “pop” of flavor it did on the first bite. With each bite and sip the combination tastes worse and worse.

Now rewind our scenario. Go back to that first bite, with the perfectly cooked salmon balancing on your fork and you take a bite and that fish oil releases and it’s oh so good and you make yummy noises. Then have a sip of a higher acid wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir. Your mouth salivates, effectively doing the same thing as using your windshield fluid on a dirty springtime drive on the freeway. Suddenly, you can see (or in this case, taste) again! With each sip and each bite they elevate each other. That is the simple goal of food and wine pairing.

So why would you ever want a lower acid wine? Because you’re not always having wine with food, that’s why. My wife and I call it “fireplace wine.” In fact, our whole cellar is divided between food wines and fireplace wines. It’s all about acidity and purpose of the beverage.

Those are our four questions. Simple as that. 

Here is how the scenario might play out in different ways. Remember back to our earlier point: if you get in the habit of ordering wine by flavor profile instead of variety, you open yourself up the world of wine possibilities.

“I’ll have a white wine, lighter bodied, fruit forward, with some good acidity.”

While Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious fit here, there are a range of other grapes that easily (and often more interestingly) fit the bill. Vermentino, Picpoul, some unoaked Chardonnays, and dry Rieslings all come to mind.

“I’ll have a white wine, fuller bodied, traditional in style, with fine acidity.”

One’s wine mindmap goes immediately to Chardonnay from France, but again by ordering by flavor profile you might be delightfully surprised by what you get. Pinot Grigio from Friuli in far Northeastern Italy comes to mind (much fuller bodied than most expect), as does Godello from Spain, Arneis from Piemonte, and Pinot Gris from Oregon. 

“I’ll have a red wine, lighter bodied, modern in style, with low acidity.”

Might be the perfect way to relax with a glass (without food) at the end of a long day at work. California Pinot Noirs, some lighter bodied Merlots, some Beaujolais, and many selections from Australia or Chile do the job. 

“I’m looking for a big, full bodied, red wine, that smells of dirt and has lots of structure (acidity).”

Oh, the choices are endless! A person asking for a wine like this instead of just “I’ll have the Cabernet” may be presented with an incredible Syrah from the Northern Rhone, a Nebbiolo from Piemonte, or a Merlot from the high plains of Washington State.

In conclusion, if you trust the server, sommelier, or beverage manager to know their stuff then get in the habit of ordering wine by flavor profile. It’s the best way to  navigate the endless choices that are confusing all the other wine customers of the restaurant. Put away assumptions of varietal profiles. Toss out the idea that all Syrah tastes the same. Trust, and you shall receive.