Six Quick and Easy Tips for Navigating Restaurant Wine Lists Like a Pro

A woman looking at the wine list in the restaurant Saint Amour in Quebec City, CanadaAlamy

Have you ever been handed a wine list at a restaurant and been completely overwhelmed?

Everyone has been there at some point, and it can be daunting. You’re under pressure to order a tasty wine that everyone will enjoy, but don’t want to pick something that will require a second mortgage.

Here are a handful of quick strategies to help navigate those intimidating and extravagant lists with a bit more ease.

Open with bubbles.

When you sit down and want to really go through the wine list, stall for time by ordering a bottle of bubbles.

Champagne is always a top choice, but there are so many excellent sparkling options typically available at a more accessible price point, particularly Prosecco and Cava. Not only is it a festive way to start any meal, but it allows for some breathing room to properly peruse the wine list and help open up everyone’s appetite.

Want to try something a little further out there? See if the restaurant has a pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, a rustic style of sparkling wine appearing increasingly on lists across the U.S.

Cropped shot of a group of friends hanging out and having champagne
Getty

There are no hard and fast rules on quality vs. price.

You’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice on what to order based on price. Some will tell you to never order the cheapest bottle on the list. Others say that the second-cheapest bottle of wine is what the restaurant wants to unload on unsuspecting customers too self-conscious to order the lowest-price wine.

The truth is, there is no quick cheat that’ll tell you which wine you should buy based on price. Sometimes, the cheapest wine is the owner’s favorite, and the restaurant gets a case discount. Or the most expensive wine is something the restaurant barely breaks even on, but keeps it around for prestige and to add to the overall experience.

What you can be sure of is that most beverage directors strive to make all the wines on their list ones that they enjoyed tasting, and deal with the price points later.

Take the road less traveled. 

 If you go into a steakhouse and look to a bottle of Napa Cab or Bordeaux, you are almost guaranteed to pay top dollar for a wine that usually has the highest markup in the joint. The same goes for a Barolo or Amarone at a five-star Italian restaurant. That’s because these are the types of bottles most diners associate with these sorts of restaurants.

However, if you look for Merlot or Zinfandel from Sonoma at that same steakhouse, you’ll likely find an outstanding wine with less sticker shock. A Valpolicella Superiore can offer the same value at your favorite Italian spot and would be a welcome alternative to Amarone. Restaurants tend to mark these bottles up less to entice diners to try their favorite “value wines.”

Double the retail price of the wine for comparison.

Most restaurants will charge a flat percentage markup on wine based on its cost. But some may play around with the prices where they think they can maximize profit.

If you are considering a wine you’re familiar with, a good rule of thumb is to double what you would pay in a local wine shop. That will give you a fair market assessment of restaurant pricing, though you should expect a bit more at higher-end restaurants.

If a wine you like is being offered at less than double its retail price, you’ve found a deal.

Group of coworkers having a dinner after job
Getty

Ask questions.

It’s amazing how many bargains can be found just by striking up a conversation with the sommelier or your server. Tell them what wines you’ve enjoyed in the past and why. If they ask followup questions, they’re trying to get a sense of your taste, not quiz you.

Besides, getting to know your wine professional has all sorts of side benefits. Maybe the restaurant has one bottle left of an older vintage that they need to clear out to make room for a new wine. Or perhaps there are a few wines not even on the list that just arrived. Maybe a sales rep dropped off some sample bottles about which the sommelier would like opinions.

Having a conversation with the staff about your wine preferences and budget could lead to a stellar value selection.

Wine preference outweighs wine pairing.

It’s easy to get hung up on trying to find the perfect pairing, and wine culture places such emphasis on the “right” things to eat and drink together. But if you know that you don’t like Rhône wines and your server or sommelier recommends a Gigondas as the best pairing for your dish, chances are that you’ll be disappointed.

Be sure to order a wine that you know you will enjoy regardless of the food. After all, you’re the one paying the bill, right?

How to Understand (Almost) Everything on a Wine Label

How to Understand (Almost) Everything on a Wine Label

Classic examples of Old World and New World wine labels / Left photo: Meg Baggott; Right photo: Sara Littlejohn

Classic examples of Old World and New World wine labels / Left photo: Meg Baggott; Right photo: Sara Littlejohn

 

Have you ever looked at a bottle of ChiantiChâteauneuf-du-PapeTaurasi or Alentejo and wondered exactly what’s inside? Or how about when you come across a Rhône-style red blend from California? Wine labels can offer up a lot of information about what’s inside—that is if you can decode the cryptic language on the label.

But fear not. There are some basic formulas that can help you understand the rather confusing and sometimes smug words on wine labels.

How to Read a Wine Label

The first thing to determine is if the wine is from the Old World (Europe, the Mediterranean, parts of Western Asia) or New World (any other wine-producing region). While all labels will include basic facts like region, producer, alcohol by volume (abv) and vintage (unless nonvintage), there are some notable distinctions.

Here are the differences between what you may find on labels from these two categories.

Red wine from Cote de Bordeaux
Photo by Meg Baggott

Old World Wine Labels

The vast majority of Old World wines will typically only indicate regions and aging classifications on the front label, but not grape varieties.

For example, red Riojas are produced typically from Tempranillo grapes, possibly with Graciano, Garnacha and perhaps Mazuelo. (And how could anyone not know that Mazuelo is the name for Carignan in Rioja). The problem is you’d be hard-pressed to find a Rioja that lists any of these grapes on the front label, if at all. The same goes for Chianti (made from Sangiovese), Burgundy (Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white), Bordeaux and many others.

The main reason for these labeling practices is that these wines are more about a regional style than the grapes themselves. The same grape can show different characteristics based on climate, soil and terroir. So, while it may seem like producers are trying to confuse you by not naming the grapes on their bottles, it’s actually quite the opposite.

In recent years, some Old World producers have begun to name their wine’s grapes on the back labels, or even occasionally on the front. The caveat is that you’re expected to know what grapes can be (and are allowed to be) used in specific regions. That’s where a hint of Old World presumption can kick in.

Another characteristic of an Old World label is it may offer guidelines to aging. Unlike many New World wine labels, terms like “Reserva” (or “Riserva” in Italy) and “Gran Reserva” have real meaning based on the region they’re from.

However, each region’s regulations for age classifications can have almost identical names, but be very different. For example, if a bottle of red Rioja has Reserva on the label, that means it has been aged for a minimum of 36 months, with at least 12 months in oak.

However, a bottle of Chianti with Riserva on the label has spent at least 24 months in oak, with another three months in bottle. Additionally, a Brunello di Montalcino with Riserva on the label has spent five years aging after harvest, with at least two of those years spent in oak and six months in bottle. This is compared to the standard four total years (two in oak and four months in bottle) for non-Riserva Brunello.

German Riesling Labels
Photo by Matthew Dimas

The most confusing wine labels of them all might be German, which contain a multitude of technical information and German-language terms like “Trockenbeerenauslese,” “Bernkasteler Badstube” and “Grosses Gewächs.” One glance and you may feel you need to be a Mensa member to ever understand these descriptions.

Here are a few tricks to help you decode German labels:

German Wine Quick Tips

German labels include ripeness levels.

For Prädikatswein, a designation that denotes superior quality wines, the levels range from the least ripe (Kabinett) to the ripest (Trockenbeerenauslese) and everything in between (Spätlese, Auslese and Beerenauslese). The ripeness levels can help indicate the sweetness level of the final wine. There may also be specific sweetness levels noted on German wine labels, which include Trocken (dry), Halbtrocken (half-dry/off-dry) and Eiswein (sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes). You may also see Feinherb stated (another term to represent off-dry wines). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

When you see two names together, particularly if the first name ends with an ‘er,’ it denotes a subregion and vineyard.

So, Bernkasteler Badstube means the wine is from the Badstube vineyard, located within the Bernkastel subregion.

German wines have their own version of Crus, like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Grosses Gewächs on a label refers to a “great growth” and a wine of the highest quality, where Grosse Lage and Erstes Lage refer to grand cru and premier cru, respectively.

From left to right; Kay Brothers 2017 Basket Pressed Amery Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); d’Arenberg 2014 The Derelict Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); Yalumba 2016 Old Bush Vine Gre­nache (Barossa Valley); and Koerner 2018 Gullyview Vineyard Cannonau Grenache (Clare Valley)
Photo by Sara Littlejohn

New World Wine Labels

With wines from the U.S., South America, Oceania and most other non-European countries, the grape variety almost always appears on the label.

Originally, New World wine labels focused less on where the grapes were grown because they were basically all unknown wine regions. Rather, they highlighted grapes to link the wines to iconic European regions. A Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could be associated with Bordeaux, while a Chardonnay could be compared to Burgundy.

This also occurred because, unlike their Old World counterparts, the style of the wine focused more on the grape’s expression than the region, though this has certainly changed over time. Now, many non-European regions are home to some of the finest vineyards in the world.

New World wine labels tend to be fairly straightforward. More often than not, they provide the grapes, region, subregion and even a description of the wine’s aromas and flavors, usually on the back.

However, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Take one of the most popular wines in the U.S. right now, The Prisoner. That name is literally all you’ll find on the front label, while the back label states simply that it’s a “red wine” from Napa Valley. These wines, like some Old World counterparts, count on the prestige of their name communicating all a wine connoisseur needs to know.

Certain New World wines may also be deemed a Rhône-style red blend or a super Tuscan-style wine. Again, you have to know the grapes used in the historic European regions to understand what’s in the bottle. Typically, Rhône-style red blends from California are a combination of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre other grapes permitted in France’s Rhône Valley.

Keep in mind that with New World labels, terms like “Reserve,” “Special” and “Selection” don’t have any regulatory minimums in terms of aging or vineyard location. They are basically marketing terms meant to imply a higher-quality bottling, but they can be slapped on any label and offer no guarantee.

The only term that really has legal meaning in the U.S. is “Meritage,” the combination of “merit” and “heritage.” A number of California winemakers banded together in the late 1980s to form the Meritage Association (now Meritage Alliance) and created this classification for Bordeaux-style blends produced by member wineries, intended as a designation of quality. These wines must be a blend of two or more of the red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet FrancMalbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and the rarer St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenère. They can’t have more than 90% of any single variety. For white Meritage, the blend must include at least two of the three Bordeaux white grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.

There’s a lot to learn from wine labels—so long as you know where to look. Keep these tricks in mind and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Published on January 21, 2020

Finding the Perfect Time to Open Aged Wine

As featured in  Wine Enthusiast Magazine

Finding the Perfect Time to Open Aged Wine

Wine bottle with two glasses

Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling a current vintage 100-point super Tuscan with a group of colleagues to celebrate a special occasion. While this iconic wine was extremely complex, focused and intense, it wasn’t really “drinking well.” Granted, it needed time to open up and perhaps a side of beef to pair with, but the consensus was that it wasn’t the earth-shattering experience the group had anticipated.

The following Sunday, I dug deep in my cellar to find a 1989 Clos des Jacobins Saint-Émilion Grand Cru that received a 90-point score in 1999. It had been stored properly for the last two decades, so I figured this was a perfect time to open it up.

I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.  

It was slightly muted at first, but when it came to life, it displayed intense dried red fruit, fig, raisin, smoked chestnuts, tobacco leaf and forest floor on the nose and palate. The acidity was still kicking, and the tannins were supple and polished. Luckily enough, my pops and I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.

As I sipped, I reminisced about that vintage of 1989, my sophomore year in high school. Visions of shredding away on my Gibson Les Paul came to mind, as well as the early stages of my high school golf career, summers working at camp and figuring out how to attract the opposite sex without making a complete fool of myself. My pops and I agreed that spending a quiet afternoon over a perfectly aged bottle of Bordeaux was exactly what we needed.

It wasn’t that the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru was necessarily a better wine than the young super Tuscan. In that moment, however, it was drinking better in its life cycle. But also, with its sophistication and wisdom, it opened a gateway for a little nostalgia and a walk down memory lane as only a perfectly aged bottle of wine can do.

How To Chill Down A Bottle of Wine… and Fast!

Friends are just arriving to your home and you forgot to put those refreshing whites in the fridge, what to do?? Don’t sweat it, we have the quickest and most effective solutions to chill those white wines for you.

Let’s get this out of the way first… there is no magic way to chill your white wine to proper serving temperature in a matter of a few minutes. There, I said it. With that out of the way, there are legitimate ways to increase the rate at which wine cools down. After endless hours of testing and examination, here is what rendered the best overall results.

Ice & Saltwater in a Bucket – This is the best, and safest, solution to cool your wine bottle in a jif. Place your bottle(s) in a metal bucket, or even a lobster pot, with some space between the bottles if you are cooling down more than one. Then fill the bucket with ice so it reaches about half way up the bottles. Next, pour in a saltwater solution so it goes up to bottlenecks without being fully submerged. The salt lowers the freezing point of water which again, can save precious minutes in getting those white wines chilled down to proper serving temps.

* Additional Tip – Give it a stir! The more liquid in the bottle that comes in closer contact with the ice water the quicker that wine will chill out.

Wrap it and Freeze It – Popping a bottle in the freezer is the way the majority of wine drinkers chill down wine fast, mostly because it works. However if you grab a few paper towels, or a cheese cloth, and run them under cold water and wrap them around the bottle before you place it in the freezer, it can lower the cooling time. Just be sure to tell Alexa to set a timer for 15 minutes, as if you leave it in there too long you could come back to a bottle with a cork popped out and one messy freezer.

Rock It – If you don’t need to chill down the entire bottle and can work with a by the glass solution then arctic rocks, or granite chilling stones, may be the quickest way to cool things down. Just pull a few out of your freezer and drop them (carefully) into your glass. They will take the wine temps down in a minute or less and won’t dilute your wine like ice or potentially impart any flavors like the frozen grape method. Once the wine comes down to your desired temp just remove the rocks with a spoon and enjoy a perfectly chilled glass of your favorite summer white!

Aerator vs Decanter: Which is Better?

As seen on Wine Enthusiast  www.winemag.com

While the premise behind aerating and decanting wine is quite similar, there are some notable differences between the two.

The goal of both is to aerate the wine—that is, to increase its exposure to oxygen. When you expand the surface area of the wine, you increase how much of it is contact with air. This allows the wine to more quickly develop intense aromas and flavors.

But the process isn’t guaranteed magic. Aerating a basic Pinot Grigio will not turn it into a perfectly aged Montrachet. The process of aeration, or limited oxidation, simply allows the potential complexities and nuances of a wine to emerge a bit faster.

vinOair Wine Aerator

So, what’s the difference between aerating and decanting? Let’s start with aerators. Typically, these are small devices that are either placed in or on the bottle or held by hand. Some variations introduce air into the device that the wine travels through, while others disperse the pour through various spouts. However, all serve to increase the wine’s exposure to air while it’s poured.

These low-profile aerators are ideal for young, opulent and tannic reds that may be a bit muted (closed) immediately upon opening a bottle, or whose tannins can overpower the balance of the wine. One of the main functions of aeration is to soften tannins, which allows the fruit and acid to shine through. Just about every wine will benefit from a bit of aeration.

Quick Wine Tip

Aerator: Use on young wines, particularly big, bold and tannic reds.

Decanter: Use on older wines and more delicate bottlings.

However, most aerators won’t address sediment found in some wine. As a refresher, sediment is the grainy buildup of solids in wine that often derives from fermentation and leftover yeast (lees). For most young wines, sediment is a non-issue, but it’s often present in older bottles.

Sediment can also clog some aerators. This can affect the flow of wine and potentially create a messy and unfortunate overflow situation.

Top view of decanter and wineglass with red wine on the wooden table
Getty

Therefore, a decanter is usually the preferred method to aerate older wines from the cellar. When poured slowly and properly, most of the wine’s sediment can be kept in the bottle. This is why many sommeliers use a candle or flashlight to illuminate the glass while pouring, so they can stop pouring once the sediment reaches the neck. This way, you’re sure to only be sipping on fine wine and not choking on grainy, solid sediment.

The art of decanting wine is a time-honored tradition. To watch the ritual of an aged Burgundy as it falls mesmerizingly into a beautifully crafted crystal decanter adds to its enjoyment.

So, to recap, the rule of thumb is simple. For young, big, bold and tannic wines, an aerator will do the trick. But for older, more delicate and fragile selections, grab a decanter and proceed with caution, as those wines may need a little extra care.

Pro tip: For young wines that need as much oxygen as they can get, double up and aerate the wine right into the decanter. Trust us, it really works.

Published on July 2, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.

Learn the Five S’s of Wine Tasting

Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

 

 

Illustration of man with glasses looking at wine
Evaluating the wine’s visual qualities / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.

Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.

Illustration of a couple swirling red and white wine
It’s all in the wrist / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.

Illustration of a man evaluating a white wine's aroma
Technique that’s right on the nose / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”

Illustration of standing woman sipping red wine
A matter of good taste / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.

When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.

Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.

Illustration of couple savoring wine after sipping
Don’t forget to enjoy / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.

Final tip

If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.

Published on April 15, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.

How to Know Who is Wine Worthy?

 

When to Open That Special Bottle 

(as featured in Wine Enthsuiast)
You know the bottles. They’ve been sitting in your wine fridge for a few years now, waiting for the perfect night and the perfect audience.

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It’s always tempting to open up those special bottles when in good company of family and friends, particularly when a wonderfully delectable dish is included. However, deciding when to pull gems from the cellar can be one of the most agonizing decisions to make—especially if you have already had a glass or two and are being egged on by your pals.

Even though you may love the people surrounding you, are they truly going to appreciate what you are about to open? Has everyone already had too many glasses pass their palate to accurately assess the true quality of your potentially stellar selection? Are there simply too many people for anyone to get more than a drop or two of this high quality, highly-anticipated juice? These are the questions that need to be addressed and answered, under potentially stressful time constraints, before you pop open that vintage bottle you’ve been saving for just the right moment.

Here are a few rules of thumb to help guide you into making the right wine service decision, and avoiding the regret of opening something spectacular you later wish you hadn’t.

The smaller the group, the better.

When there are too many people, inevitably someone will not get a chance to taste the opened bottle and you will probably hear about it for months to come. Generally speaking for a single standard bottle, if there are any more than six people, you may want to save it for a more intimate gathering.

Know your audience.

If more than half of the group are really going to appreciate and enjoy something special, then pop the cork. Who knows, you may enlighten someone with an epiphany wine experience.

Keep food pairing in mind.

Having the perfect food pairing may not be totally necessary for the enjoyment of a high-quality bottle. However, having a terrible pairing, like a wonderfully aged Bordeaux with oysters, can certainly hinder a potentially memorable wine drinking experience.

Do it early in the night.

Taste buds tend to get a little tired as an evening of wine tasting progresses, rendering that glorious bottle mundane if it’s not one of the first poured. Plus, the more that your crew tends to consume, the less likely they are to get properly geeky about all of the intricacies of something that deserves a little more attention.

Be selfish.

Sometimes you just want to open a phenomenal wine because you feel like it. In those cases, forget about any of these suggestions and just crack it open! Sometimes life is too short to not drink your best wine.

Published on December 20, 2018
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.