Ordering wine at a restaurant doesn't have to be an arcane ritual. Here are a few simple steps to get great wine with your dinner.
1. Know what kind of wines exist.
There are four categories of wine: still wines (which include reds, whites and rosÃ©s), sparkling wines like Champagne and Cava, Fortified wines like Sherry or Port, and iced wines. Since fortified wines are usually enjoyed after dinner and iced wines are ordered at dessert, don't worry about ordering them for dinner.
Wines are also classified by being Old World European (France, Italy and Spain)or New World (North America, Australia, Argentina amongst others). Don't worry too much about trying to order Italian wine at an Italian restaurant. However, you might be interested to find out what types of grapes (or varietals) are grown in which regions, to avoid pricey markups. In the United States, order a Zinfandel for a good red wine as they are grown in California. Riesling is a popular varietal in Canada and is used for iced wines.
2. Pair the right wines with the right food
If the restaurant has a huge menu of wines, the easiest way to narrow the selection is to start by asking whether you want red or white wine. The rule of thumb is to match the colour of your wine with the colour of your main course. Order red wine if you are ordering red meats or a dish with a heavy red sauce. Order white wine for chicken or fish. Make sure you take the type and taste of sauce into account, as a lot of wines may not play well with spicy or sweet sauces, or sauces with tomato bases.
Avoid Pinot or Chardonnay labels if you're ordering spicy foods. Avoid Merlots or Rieslings with sweet foods.
If your guests are ordering all different dishes, consider ordering one red and one white, or order wine by the glass instead of a bottle.
3. Taste your wine
The wine tasting is an established ritual in most restaurants. Once you've selected a wine, your server will return with the uncorked bottle. Inspect the label and vintage to make sure it's the one you ordered. Once you've checked that it is, your server will then uncork the bottle and place the cork beside you. Pick up the cork, and check to see that it is not dried out or cracked.
Next, the server will pour a little for you to taste. Pick up the glass and check that it is not cloudy or full of particles. If it is, and it is a young vintage, there could be something wrong with the wine. If it is an old vintage, the restaurant should have decanted the wine.
Next, give your glass a little swirl. This will introduce oxygen into your wine and release esters, ethers, and aldehydes that give you a better smell. While the wine is still moving, sniff the wine and verify that there are no strong or offensive odours, like the smell of vinegar. In particular, watch out if your wine smells like vinegar, sour milk, rotten eggs, or mould. If you aren't sure, give another sniff. If it's still slight, take a bite of bread to clear your palette and move on to sip a little. If it tastes fine but smells bad, tell the server that the wine smells off.
It's unlikely that the wine will taste bad after the previous inspection.
Once you've given it your approval, the server will begin to pour wine for your guests.
If you're not happy with the wine, a good restaurant should be happy to exchange a bottle, but moreso if any problems crop up in your inspection. That's why the ritual exists, after all. But give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt if you're not sure. If you are sure, be polite but don't let the restaurant pressure you.
4. Don't be afraid to ask your server.
Asking is not a sign of weakness! Over 95% of restaurant guests ask their servers for recommendations. Empower and flatter yours, and they will do their best to find you some great wine for your dinner.
Asking for recommendations from your server or wine steward could introduce you to whole new wines you wouldn't normally try. If the restaurant is good, their sommeliers will be highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. If you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of guests, try coming into the restaurant 15 minutes early to discuss wine selection with your sommelier. Be sure to let him or her know your price range and possible food selections.