Alright, so let’s get down to the nitty gritty of the wine world. You’re at a restaurant with a party of six or more, and the waiter hands you the wine list. You see a section for reds, whites, blushes, and dessert wines. You’ve got no idea what to order, and what’s worse no one at your table relieves you of your duty. Well, it’s time to buck up and grab the bottle by the horns, as it were.
First, relax. There’s no need to panic. Restaurants generally want you to enjoy the experience of dining at their establishment, so if you’re completely lost it is perfectly acceptable to ask the waiter for a recommendation. Do not be afraid to set a price limit either. Of course the 1945 Lafite-Rothschild is going to be excellent regardless, it may not necessarily be the best wine to splurge on at a casual dinner. You have a right to have a delicious wine at a price you’re comfortable with.
If you are feeling adventurous, you should try picking out a wine on your own. The first big stumbling block that neophytes encounter is the confusion between white and red wine dishes. The general rule of thumb is red wines with meat and whites with fish or fowl. This is an overgeneralization, but it lays out the basic strategy. White wines tend to be simpler and less powerful and thus are a good match for milder foods such as poached seafood or a simple roast chicken. That being said, a Cuban garlic-soaked chicken could certainly go well with a nice spicy Syrah. The real rule to remember is intense food goes best with strong or sturdy wines, and subtle food goes well with more moderate or mild wines.
Okay, so what if some of the people at your table are getting steaks and the others are ordering salmon? No need to panic, that’s why God invented the blush, or rose. Roses often get a bad rap here in the United States, more often than not because we associate them with the forgettable “white zinfandel” craze of the Eighties. A real rose is actually quite traditional and they can be truly excellent complimentary wines for a broad range of meals.
So, you’ve decided on a type of wine, now how do you decide on a country of origin? Many wine-savvy restaurants have their wines broken down by country, so you might see California, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. This is where the real fun comes in, and where being adventurous really pays off. A syrah from California will taste different from a syrah from France, or a shiraz from Australia even though they all come from the same grape. If you know a particular varietal that you like, why not try that varietal from a different country? If you have a big enough party it can be a lot of fun to try a few bottles of the same varietal from different countries of origin. This is a great way to learn about terroir. We’ll save that discussion for another time!
As a parting note, the most important thing to remember is that drinking wine should above all else increase the enjoyment of a meal. Good friends, good food, and good wine can make for a beautiful life.