When dining out, ordering wine should not be a cause of anxiety. We are not all wine connoisseurs, and when presented with a wine list, which is more like a book, how can we select something appropriate without feeling like jerk. It always seems to be the man's job to select a wine, so how do we usually handle it? We order beer.
If you are brave enough to actually order a bottle, when it comes, you are faced with a waiter/waitress going through strange, ritualistic motions with the bottle; Showing the bottle like you've never seen one before, handing you the cork, and pouring you only a mouthful. Each one of these actions actually has a practical purpose, and knowing this will make you much more at ease and able to react appropriately.
Selecting a Bottle
You can simplify using the Billy Joel method of "A bottle of white, a bottle of red," but rose wine is not made by mixing the two together. White Zinfandel is actually not white.
Merlot - a red grape variety. While capable of producing red wine with a soft, plummy character that is immediately appealing, it is also capable of producing wines of substantial intensity that will age for many years in the cellar.
Cabernet Sauvignon - a red grape variety. Widely planted with Bordeaux as its historical reference point. Often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Flavors run from red cherry to blackcurrant and are usually quite assertive.
Chardonnay - a white grape variety. Varies widely in style from the crisp lemon-lime-mineral flavors of classic Chablis to rich, oaky, buttery wines from California, Australia and other areas of the "new world."
Zinfandel - a red grape variety. With origins not entirely established by wine world scholars, Zinfandel is nevertheless at home in California. Wine styles run the gamut from blush wines with just the barest hint of color to nearly opaque.
Pinot Noir - a red grape variety. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is generally thought to be the world's finest red wine grape. Ranges in style from wines of amazing delicacy and grace to wines of voluptuous, velvety intensity. A wine for sensualists.
Sauvignon Blanc - a white grape variety. The white wine relative of Cabernet Sauvignon and a white wine varietal with a particularly assertive personality. Flavors run from citrus-gooseberry intensity to round, rich, melon and fig.
You can always play it safe by ordering a bottle of what they serve by the glass. At least you know it is not something bizarre, but it won't be the greatest either.
A higher price doesn't always mean that you will like what you order. Be reasonable.
Testing the Wine
Not all servers will go through all the following motions, but sometimes you get a real showoff.
Presenting of the Bottle and Label
When your server shows you the bottle, this is done for you to confirm that it is the bottle and vintage(year) that you ordered. You should also notice if the label looks as if it were slapped on later such as an expensive label on a cheap bottle. Simply nod to your server to show your approval.
Inspecting the Cork
After the server removes the cork, they may place it in front of you for inspection. If it is a twist-off cap, skip this entire section. The cork is not meant to be sniffed, but looked at. If the cork is too wet all the way through, it may indicate that the bottle was stored improperly, or that there was an air leak which leads to the spoiling of the wine. Too dry a cork may also indicate that the bottle was stored improperly. Bottles should be stored on their sides, keeping the cork moist.
Proper storage of wine is something potential buyers need to consider at wine auctions when they are bidding on larger bottles, such as Jeroboams, Balthazars and Nebuchadnezzars: these larger bottles often adorn restaurants and are left standing on shelves in areas around the dining room. A few years of a standing bottle combined with the heat of the restaurant could leave the bidder with an expensive bottle of vinegar. Most knowledgeable wine collectors will ask for certification showing where the bottles came from and how they were stored.
Sniffing and Tasting
Initially the server will pour only a small amount in the glass of the person who ordered the wine. This amount is intended to be sniffed and tasting only to determine if the wine has gone bad, not if you like the wine or not. The first time you taste and/or smell bad wine, you will understand why this is done. It is only appropriate to turn away wine when it has turned, not because it's not what you hoped for. Again, you may simply nod or say something to acknowledge your approval. The server will then continue pouring for your entire party.
Keep in mind that if you order another bottle, you might go through this whole process again. Even if you order the same wine.
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