kelly magyarics

washington, d.c.-based wine, spirits & lifestyle writer / wine educator

703.203.9463

Tips for Enjoying Wine in a Restaurant

Selecting and enjoying wine in a restaurant can sometimes feel like a daunting task. But it doesn't have to be. Here are ten tips for enjoying wine when dining out:

1. Don’t be afraid to ask the sommelier or server for advice. Let him know what kind of wine you and your dining companions prefer (ex. “We like light reds that don’t dry out our mouths”; or “We don’t like white wines that are too oaky.”)

2. Look beyond the bottle. Many restaurants now offer other options for wine lovers. Wines served by the glass, as well as in half-bottles, and wine flights (2-3 ounce pours of several wines, served at the same time), are great when you are dining out and everyone wants to eat and drink something different.

3. Visit the Southern Hemisphere for white wines. New Zealand and South African Sauvignon Blancs are terrific food wines because of their herby, citrusy quality and great acidity. They work with so many foods for the same reason that squirting a lemon wedge on your dish does—it “wakes up” your taste buds, makes your mouth water, and compels you to go back and take another bite of your food. Also look for “Unoaked Chardonnays” from the same areas—they are crisp and refreshing, without the oaky aftertaste that can often overpower your food.

4. If all of you wishes to drink the same kind of wine, but each guest is ordering something different from the menu (one person is ordering roast chicken, another is opting for grilled salmon, and a third wants filet mignon), select a Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or Washington. Pinots are typically light to medium bodied, with light tannins. They can hold their own next to any dish (even a steak, in a pinch…), and they go exceptionally well with duck, salmon and chicken.

5. Seek out value areas on the wine list. Wines from South America, South Africa and the Languedoc region of France are delicious choices that won’t break the bank. You may end up finding a new favorite wine (and impress your friends with your stellar wine knowledge!)

6. Select Champagne or other sparkling wines. Usually relegated to Valentine’s Day, anniversaries or other celebrations, sparkling wines are often overlooked when dining out. But they are great wines to enjoy with food—the bubbles and acidity cleanse and refresh the palate. An expected, but wonderful match: Champagne and sushi. In addition to French Champagne, also look for Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, and California sparkling wine.

7. Remember a few pairings. Pinot noir is just made for salmon. Chianti and Pinot Grigio go perfectly with anything tomato-based (i.e. a lot of Italian cuisine). Cotes du Rhone pair beautifully with lamb and stews. Off-dry Rieslings and Gewurztraminers work with Thai, Indian and Vietnamese foods.

8. Make sure the wines are served at the right temperature. Often, red wine in restaurants is served too warm. “Cellar temperature” for reds is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If full-bodied reds like Shiraz or Zinfandel are served much higher than that, you may feel a hot alcohol sensation in the back of your throat. If this happens, ask the server for a bucket of ice water, and submerge the bottle for a few minutes (if the wine is served by the glass, send it back and ask it to be chilled). Likewise, whites served too cold, while refreshing on a hot day, will numb the fruit flavors. If a white is served ice cold, just use your hands to cup the glass for a few minutes to bring it up to a temperature where you will be able to enjoy its nuances.

9. If the wine smells or tastes musty or moldy, send it back! TCA is a chemical compound caused by a mold in the cork, and causes the wine to smell and taste moldy, musty or like wet dogs or wet newspaper (not appealing to the average diner…). About 5% of the world’s wines are affected with TCA. Let your server or sommelier know if you are one of the unlucky ones who gets a bottle or glass contaminated with TCA. They should have no problem replacing it.

10. Wine isn’t what you expected? If you and your companions just don’t like the wine, you can certainly send it back and get another bottle, but do not expect the restaurant to foot the bill. But don’t let it ruin your dining experience. Wine is very subjective, and figuring out what you like to drink is an ongoing process. Next time, try something else on the menu!