We’ve probably all been there at some point — one member of your dining party wants to be the wine expert and, while bumbling through the wine menu, they are unknowingly asking the busboy which wine he’d recommend with the Buffalo wings or bacon cheeseburger.
Ok, that example may be a bit of an exaggeration, but ordering wine seems to be an event that flusters even some knowledgeable diners. Put them in that situation abroad in an unfamiliar country, and it can make for an anxiety-inducing meal.
The truth is, unless you’re a Master of Wine, you aren’t going to know everything about every wine out there, and that’s why higher-end restaurants keep a knowledgeable sommelier on staff.
If you’re traveling to a destination known for its gastronomy and wine, here are some helpful tips to make the most of your dining experience and help you to not look like a novice when ordering wine.
Befriend the Sommelier
Some sommeliers specialize in regions, while others may have expertise on certain varietals or styles. Either way, in 98% of cases, the wine steward should be your new best friend. There seems to be some distrust from some travelers that sommeliers just want to pass off the most expensive bottle on the menu. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Sommeliers are passionate about wine; enough so to put themselves through rigorous study and training, meaning they want you to have the best dining experience possible. And they are far less judgmental than people realize. They aren’t likely to scoff at your wine choices, even if your preferred style doesn’t fall into the perceived “fine wine” category.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
This sounds like an odd tip related to wine, but in some fine dining establishments, especially L’Atelier by Joel Robuchon, the prime seats are at the bar. Most people prefer to be in a booth or dining table in a corner, but if you’re a wine aficionado, you want to put yourself as close to the action as possible. Not only do you often get to meet the chef, you get to watch the entire cooking process. Open kitchens are a treat, and guess where the sommelier is hanging out in between pouring wines for the guests in the far reaches of the restaurant?
Sitting close to the kitchen and wine staff has resulted in some fabulous experiences over the years. I became friends with Robuchon’s sommelier in Taipei, and over the course of two years, he taught me a lot about wine, especially French whites. Because he had time in between tables, he would talk with us at length about the food and the reasons he chose that wine pairing, and that often led to sampling a number of other wines we would have never tried otherwise.
Tell the Sommelier What You Like
Had an amazing Barolo in Italy a few years ago on vacation? Or you know you prefer dry reds and now you’re in a Parisian restaurant with not the slightest clue on French wines? Let your wine steward know about your favorite wine or style and they will do their best to ensure they find something that matches your style. In most cases, the sommelier is the one who actually builds the wine list at the restaurant so he or she knows each wine offered.
By Glass or Bottle
In most cases, wines by the glass offerings are more limited and may be cheaper, less interesting offerings. While the glass may be cheaper per se, it often works out to more money than a bottle. Look at the prices, the size of your group, and what everyone plans to drink. If three of you are ordering a glass of the same wine, you’re better off looking at the bottle offerings for the same style of wine — you might wind up with a far better quality wine.
In Europe, it’s common to find wine by the half bottle, which may be the perfect solution for lunch or when you want to try several different wines. At one of my favorite cafes in Athens, we typically order a half bottle of the house white and follow up with a half bottle of the red as they are both really good wines.
To Sniff or Not to Sniff
Contrary to what you might have seen, many wine experts will advise you not to sniff the cork. The first sign of a wine novice is grabbing the cork and taking a giant puff. It smells like, well, cork. Sniffing the cork is really reserved for determining whether a wine has been “corked” or suffered another fault during aging. What you should do is observe the cork when set in front of you for seepage and cracking and then taste the wine. If the wine has an odd smell or taste in the glass, you’ll catch it when you’re tasting the first pour.
Inspect the Wine
When the sommelier presents the wine to you, it’s to ensure the correct wine, which includes vintage. Sometimes, a restaurant will have run out of a particular vintage and substituted a different one — you will want to check that as it could mean a price difference as well. A good sommelier will tell you right off, we no longer have the x year vintage, we are now serving the y, and proceed to describe the nuances of the different years.
Proper Tasting of Wine
Another important aspect of ordering wine is the first taste to determine the quality of the wine. The sommelier will present the wine to the person who ordered the bottle and pour a taste. They will hold the bottle displayed towards you until you give the approval that it is ok to serve. Nervous about the proper way to taste a wine? Hold the glass to your nose and smell it. Many people who are into wine will then “swirl the wine’s esters” letting loose more aromatics. They will take another quick smell and then taste, letting the wine linger along their taste buds. Sound too nerve wracking or worried about looking like a fool? Take a good smell and slowly sip the wine in your glass. Once you’re satisfied, nod ok or say yes and the wine steward will proceed to serve the table, finishing with you last.
How to Order When There is no Sommelier
Not at a fine dining establish that employs a sommelier? What if you are at the mom and pop hole in the wall trattoria in Bologna, Italy? The same rules usually apply. Most small family-owned restaurants have wines on the menu they like to drink. And, in many cases their house wines are made by family or are especially made for them. The owners of casual restaurants in Italy and Greece have shared some fabulous stories about their house wines.
Are you from California and see your favorite Napa Cabernet on the menu while dining in Tuscany? Skip the urge to order it. Not only will it be a lot more expensive, you’re missing out on trying some local wines you may never find back home.
To Pair or Not to Pair
This is something I feel very strongly about — should you worry about pairing your wine with the meal or spend the extra on wine pairings that complement chef’s tasting set menus? If you’re about to spend 200-euros on a dinner, you should try to include the wine pairing if you truly like wine. This is often where a meal can really shine or bomb. It’s almost a great opportunity sample smaller portions of a variety of wines without ordering full glasses or a bottle. Special events and tasting menus are usually always the exception to the rule on better wine offerings by the bottle only. Sommeliers open good bottles and pair the most appropriate wines with each course — some of the bottles would cost far more than I would spend on a bottle of wine normally.
One of my most memorable experiences was a $300 US per person event dinner at Robuchon in Taipei, wherein the person next to us went to order a glass of wine that paired horribly with the dinner. The sommelier secretly winced and asked the man if he wanted to consider another option that might pair better with the dinner as the wine chosen would make the food taste sour and the wine acidic. He then said, I will pour you the glass you requested, but please let me pour you a taste of this other wine, which I think will pair much better.
Another example of a great travel experience going for the wine pairing was at the Michelin-starred Narisawa restaurant in Tokyo. They had special Japanese wines on the menu that they paired with each course. It was fascinating to try locally-produced Japanese offerings as I was not even aware Japan really produced any wines.
At the end of the day, drinking wine is a highly personal activity and there is no right or wrong answer on how best to enjoy it. However, if you’re traveling through some of the world’s best wine regions, having some advance information and knowing how to make the most out of your interaction with the sommelier can do wonders in creating an unforgettable dining experience abroad.
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