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We can’t all be walking wine guides, and being confronted with a wine list in a fancy restaurant can be an intimidating experience. Your waiter or sommelier should have hopefully been extensively trained on the wines available so don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions. A sommelier’s job is to find a wine that you will enjoy the most, not the wine that costs the most (although sometimes those two things can happen at the same time)!
Do your research
If it is a big occasion or a business dinner, a little preparation is absolutely key! Many restaurants have the wine lists available on the their websites and if not, they will be very happy to email you a copy of the wine list. This is also a good time to check their corkage policy if you are thinking of bringing your own bottle.
Don’t be afraid to talk about price
Price is the single biggest factor when deciding on a wine.
Everyone has a price range that they are more comfortable with, and you should feel free to communicate this to your waiter. Offer up a price range to your waiter, such as ‘my top range is about R450 per bottle’ or ‘I usually spend R150 per person on wine’.
Have an idea of what you like
This can be a very rough idea, but it is helpful to have a few key words that you can use to describe the kind of wine you are looking for.
A simple phrase such as ‘a dry white wine, unoaked similar to Sauvignon Blanc’ or ‘I like a more full bodied red wine’ will be very helpful.
Match your preferences, not your food
Know that it is very unlikely that you will find a single bottle of wine that will pair well with everyone’s meal (unless you are a table of 1, or everyone is eating the same dish).
A wiser choice is to choose a wine that suits your palate, and is at the very least, compatible with your meal.
Know how to taste
The person who orders the wine is the person towards whom the wine service will be directed. Choosing to take the wine list at the beginning of the meal indicates to the waiter that you are the decision maker. Once you’ve selected the wine, the waiter will present the bottle to you.
This is your opportunity to check the following:
Is this the correct wine?
Is this the correct vintage?
Is the wine at the right temperature? (place your hand gently on the bottle to test if it is cool enough)
Now the big question: What are you tasting for?
Tasting wine is to identify any faults with the wine. A wine may be ‘corked’ or in some way undrinkable.
Check for obvious mouldy, damp cellar, wet dog smells.
Check for obvious vinegar flavours.
If you are unsure, feel free to ask the manager to also taste the wine. Don’t feel bad about sending a faulty wine back – the restaurant usually just returns the bottle to the estate for a refund, so there is no harm done.
Sweet wine is not for dessert
When pairing wines with food, we very rarely pair like with like (for example spicy food doesn’t always go with a spicy wine), so why do we pair sweet wine with sweet dishes? If you enjoy sweet wines, rather savour them after dessert or as a substitute to a dessert dish.
If you’re planning a big night, remember to enjoy yourself responsibly. Arrange for a sober driver in advance, so that everyone can relax and appreciate the food and wine.
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