Matching the perfect wine to a dish in a restaurant can often leave diners feeling frustrated. Feeling perplexed by a wine list is not uncommon and many often tend to go with a familiar option when under pressure. Yet, this doesn’t have to be the case.

This article will guide wine enthusiasts on the best way to navigate a restaurant wine list and ensure that your wine choice will elevate your dining experience to new heights.

Perfecting Your Restaurant Experience

A restaurant experience should be one you cannot duplicate at home. The chef is careful to source beautiful ingredients and combine them in a way that builds layers of complex flavours that you cannot make at home. Try to stray a little outside your comfort zone. Don’t just order the same wine you drink regularly.

As many oenophiles know, the principles of wine pairing can help to enhance your dining experience. These same principles can be of assistance when navigating a restaurant wine list. If you find the thought of choosing from a restaurant wine list daunting, here are some helpful tips.

Navigational Tips For Choosing The Perfect Wine

As we have mentioned before, the basic principles of wine pairing can often help us in finding our way around a restaurant’s wine list. There are a number of core elements to keep In mind when choosing the right bottle. However, while matching wine with food is great, the most important thing is that you have a wine you enjoy drinking. If that means throwing out the principals of wine pairing, then so be it. It’s your night out!

Select A Region

It is often helpful to decide what country you would like to drink first. There are two benefits to this approach. First, it helps to narrow down the wine list dramatically, which is especially useful if the list is more than a page or two. Secondly, however, it also helps to match the region of the wine with the origin of the food.

Wine often has a symbiotic relationship with the culinary traditions of the region in which it is grown, so pairing a wine based on place can help you choose a good match. For example, if you have ordered a dish with strong Italian and Mediterranean influences such as tomatoes and olives, this may guide you to choose a wine from Italy, Southern France, Western Spain, Greece or even North Africa. As they say, “What grows together goes together.”

Decide What You Want To Spend

Price should be a consideration when choosing a wine. However, don’t just choose the most expensive wine on the list because you think it must be best. Likewise, don’t just chose the least expensive because you think it is the best deal. A good restaurant will develop a wine list to accommodate most budgets and you should first decide how much you would like to spend.

A good rule of thumb is to consider 2 to 3 times what you normally spend on a good bottle of wine. This will help to narrow your choices even further. However, don’t be slavish to a budget. If the sommelier points out a wine he or she thinks would be fantastic for you, then be prepared to be flexible.

Look For the Age

Pay close attention to the age of wines on the list. Most whites should be less than 3 years old, unless it is known to age well like Riesling, white Burgundy, Rioja or Bordeaux. Reds can be all over the map, and your choice of a young or mature red depends on how you like your wine and what you are having it with.

Young red wines tend to have fresh fruit and pronounced tannins, which is great for dishes like steak and fatty meats. Red wines become less tannic as they age, and their fruit turns from fresh to dried. After 5 or so years they also begin to develop tertiary flavours like forest floor, mushroom and soy. These more mature flavours tend to go well with rich, stewed and earthier dishes. However, your overarching selection should be based on the wine flavours you like. If you like fresh fruit, choose young wines, if you like earthy, tertiary flavours, choose a mature wine.

A wine’s vintage can also be an important consideration, but not necessarily the way you might think. So-called “great vintages” may be too tightly wound and tannic to enjoy at a restaurant, particularly if they are still quite young. Rather, so-called “poorer vintages” are often a great selection at a restaurant because they tend to drink better at a younger age. If you are unsure of what the vintage was like in a particular region, be sure to ask the restaurant’s sommelier for their advice. They have tried the wine and will be able to help you in your final selection.  

Match The Wine To The Dish

You want to ensure that your chosen wine will not clash with the dish you have ordered, and this can be problematic if people order quite different dishes. If you have enough diners, you can always order multiple wines with a course, but if you are fewer than 5 people, you may want to pick an “in-between” wine. These are wines that can go either way, with meat, fish or vegetables. Reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay are good choices here, as are whites like full-bodied Chardonnays or Rhone blends or Marsanne and Roussanne.

If enough people order a similar dish, then you might want to consider the principles of wine pairing. Think about the key elements of the dish and consider how they will play against the structural components of your wine choice. Pay attention to the weight of the food, how fatty or rich it is, whether there are sweet or savoury accents. Determine whether you want the wine to compliment or contrast with the flavours of the dish.

A Restaurant Wine List: Opportunities For Enjoyment

Navigating a wine list should not be intimidating or daunting. Choosing the wine should be an enjoyable part of the experience. By keeping some basic wine pairing principles in mind and the guidelines mentioned above, you can be guaranteed to choose the perfect bottle of wine. And remember to use the experience of the restaurant’s sommelier to your advantage. There’s nothing they enjoy more than exceeding a customer’s expectations.

Not every wine pairing is nirvana, but once in a while you will experience a combination that is truly memorable. This will make your restaurant experience one to remember.

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