Expert Wining & Dining

Ordering a good wine at a restaurant is a daunting task for many of us. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a connoisseur to impress your dinner buddies. Tijan Biner reveals the best secrets to help you conquer your next wine list with confidence.

We’ve all sat down for dinner with friends at an unfamiliar restaurant, and have tried to conceal the puzzled look on our face while we look over the wine list. Ordering a glass of wine at a restaurant is almost like shooting darts with a blindfold. We may aim perfectly for a delicious wine and escape embarrassment in the process, but we’ll most likely end up nowhere near the dartboard. By following a few of these simple tips before you order, you’ll never have to fear a wine list again.

DOES HIGH PRICE MEAN HIGH-QUALITY?

There has been a long, ongoing debate about whether the price of a wine truly represents its quality. Some will tell you not to fall for a restaurant’s markup, while others believe that a wine’s price determines exactly how good it is.
Most restaurants tend to charge ‘twice retail’ for their bottled wines, which means you should prepare to spend approximately $50 on that same bottle of $25 cabernet you saw in the bottle shop. Restaurateurs claim to make most of their profit off what their customers drink, so the most expensive bottle of wine likely represents a favourite among diners.

Many of us also tend to scan the wine list for a glass or bottle that’s just barely above the cheapest option on the list, which is called the ‘second cheapest bottle rule’. Restaurant owners are well aware of the fact that you’ll try and avoid coming off as a cheapo when it comes to ordering wine, so they’ll usually mark up the second tier of cheapest bottles.

Alternatively, Benjamin Baker, the winemaker at Wimmera Hills Winery says that a wine’s price is generally a good representation of its quality, because it has been carefully evaluated by the restaurant’s sommelier.

“You pay a premium [price] for wine served in a restaurant, because the sommelier has spent time selecting the wines and compiling the wine list,” says Baker.

“Get your money’s worth by asking the sommelier’s opinion, and discuss the choices on the wine list. When you go out to a restaurant, buy the wine that you think you will like, and to save money, go out less times in the month.”

MATCH TO YOUR MEAL

Diners usually tend to glance at the wine list before looking at the menu, but to make a thorough decision, it’s a good idea to choose your meal first.

Baker suggests that you follow tradition and match your wine to your meal, because certain flavours in food tend to bring out different tastes in wine.

“If you [don’t have a] particular reason for wanting a different wine, then go with the traditional advice and [match your wine to your meal],” says Baker.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s recommended you choose a white wine for fish, chicken or seafood, and red wine for steak. The secret behind many classic wine-and-food matches is to consider the body or richness of both the food and the wine. Matching your wine to the most prominent element of your meal is also critical to wine pairings. A dominant character of a dish is most likely the sauce, the seasoning or the cooking method, rather than a main ingredient. A poached chicken breast that is lightly simmered in a subtle, creamy lemon sauce calls for a fresh white wine, whereas a chicken dish that is covered in a dark wine or mushroom sauce is best served with a soft red.

Keep in mind, however, that wine-and-food pairing isn’t the be all and end all. Many people deprive themselves of wines that they really enjoy, so if you’re interested in something specific, order what you like.

AVOID THE HOUSE WINE

Most people choose a house wine because it is the cheapest, but it’s often not worthwhile financially. A house wine may be the cheapest bottle on the wine list, but the markup is massive. It’s not uncommon for a restaurant to charge for a glass what they pay for the entire bottle.

In saying that, not all house wines are completely frowned upon, and you may come across a few hidden gems that are of good quality and represent the style of the restaurant. However, unless you’re eating in a little European village where it could be fun to try the local drink, try to steer clear of the house wine.

“Most restaurants choose a house wine that is complementary to the style of [the] restaurant and represents its image,” he says.

Baker suggests not choosing the house wine if you’re interested in learning more about wine and how different types are made.

“[House wines] may be very generic, as [the restaurant] is trying to please a broad spectrum of palates, so if you want to learn about wines, steer clear of house wines.”

If you simply ask the waiter for a ‘glass of red’, or a ‘glass of white’, it’s likely that they’ll return with a glass of the restaurant’s house wine. Baker suggests that it’s extremely beneficial to “enter into a discussion about the wines; [the sommelier] should be pleased to discuss them with you”.

THE GREAT DEBATE: GLASS OR BOTTLE?

It’s the most-asked question at a dinner table: should you order a bottle or drink by the glass? A wine by the glass typically equates to a quarter of the bottle, and the price of a glass is generally slightly higher than a single bottle. So if you know that you’ll have at least three glasses, it’s best to buy the bottle.

However, sometimes it’s worth paying the additional markup for individual glasses, so you can test a few varieties over the course of the meal. You may also prefer a different type of wine to the people you are having dinner with, and to keep everyone happy, it’s often best for everyone to order their own glass.

Baker explains that he always buys a bottle when he’s out for dinner, which is largely because of his line of work.

“I’d always get a bottle for a number of reasons. Professionally, I’d like to see how the wine is packaged. Personally, I’d probably want more than one glass!”

Once you’ve made your decision, it’s time to sit back and enjoy your well-deserved glass (or bottle) of wine. Remember that your choice is only as good as the wine list itself, so if the wine is not good, you can’t blame yourself. If you follow a few of these simple tips next time you’ve got a wine list in hand, you’ll go from what once felt like shooting at a dartboard with your eyes closed, to hitting the bullseye every time.