In the midst of my studying, I was briefly interrupted by the TV. As a parent, I would never allow this kind of studying, but hey, I’m the boss. I perked up because the segment was about wine selection in a restaurant. Suddenly, I was dreaming of someone cooking me a meal for a change – which quickly snapped me back to reality. I imagined myself with three kids in tow trying to order wine from a sommelier at a fancy restaurant while Max shouts “Shirley temple, please” (with four cherries) because, let’s face it, that’s what happens.
Actually, if you go to restaurants that boast sommeliers or have the ‘indigenous grapes’ memorized for every wine region, this was the segment for you! If not, I’m afraid it was about as helpful as when people stop you in the street to offer parenting advice – or kind of like when your kids ‘help’ you cook or do the grocery shopping. Again, I stress, so helpful.
It got me thinking about the basics of sorting through a standard wine menu, for either a glass of wine or a bottle. Hopefully you won’t share my recent experience where a restaurant didn’t actually have any of the bottles on its wine list in stock and I was forced to dig around behind the bar…. But that’s another story for another day!
…And I admit that sometimes even I am at a loss for what to order by the glass. I always ask the waiter, what they think is good. Usually, you can tell instantly if they know what they are talking about. It never hurts to ask.
So here’s the breakdown:
I would say the average restaurant wine list contains the following:
Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Chardonnay, Rose
Sometimes you will find a Chablis, white Burgundy (Bourgogne), which is usually referred to as ‘French Chardonnay’, Soave and Albarino.
Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet, Bourdeaux, Rioja, Pinot Noir, Red Burgundy, Chianti, Barolo, or really any Italian red (Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Barbaresco, Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino)
Let’s start with white:
Pinot Grigio is an Italian white wine, which typically has the mildest flavors and tends to be served very cold (helping further dull any taste it may have). If you’re not big on BIG taste, this is your wine.
Sauvignon Blanc can be grown anywhere – and is typically sourced from Australia, New Zealand, California, and France (Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc), Chile or Argentina. It’s common to find a New Zealand SB on the menu, which is crisp, refreshing, and dry with a tangy taste of gooseberries (and sometimes passion fruit, peach, melon, apple, green pepper, etc.), lime, lemon, and floral. Sancerre tends to take on a more mineral feel, given a cooler climate and different soil. All in all, this is a good, crisp dry wine, excellent with sea food and for sitting at a bar. There are haters out there, but I say this is a good choice for a wine list.
Chardonnay: This is also a dry wine, with high acidity and a fuller body than the rest of the pack. Most Chardonnay above a low price point has spent some time in new oak barrels, giving it a toasty flavor, and it typically has a creamy/ buttery texture (which is a result of malolactic fermentation converting sharp malic acid into softer, rounder lactic acid…a natural process). Some winemakers are moving away from oaking Chardonnay, but in general much of the Chardonnay you would see on a wine list has at least some oak influence. Flavors will vary depending on country and winemaking practices. Chardonnay, in general, is a neutral grape, so the taste of the wine actually comes from soil types and influences from weather, as well as winemaking technique. The best of the best hails from France’s Cote D’Or, known as Bourgogne (Burgundy). This wine has delicate flavors, yet is crisp and fuller bodied. I often taste peach, apple, pears, lemons, grapefruit, biscuit, butter, honey and toast. This is a good food wine, but can also be drunk on its own.
Soave is a dry, light-bodied wine made in Italy, similar in profile to Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, but with a smooth richness that adds a little extra punch. Soave is made from the Garganega grape of Northern Italy, and the wines are known for their characteristic flavors of melon and orange zest, as well as peach, honeydew, lemon zest, sweet marjoram and subtle notes of saltiness. Great with a cheese plate, with food or on its own.
Albarino is a light bodied wine from Portugal, dry with high acidity, making it quite crisp, and flavors of peach, apricots and floral.
Pinot Noir (also referred to as ‘Red Burgundy’ on menus when sourced from France). Pinot Noir has not always been popular in the US. The Pinot Noir grape is a ‘diva’ of a grape, which makes it a winemakers nightmare… and dream. The king of Pinot Noir is Burgundy. I like PN – it’s a good wine to drink on its own but you can also pair it nicely with a meal. It can be simple, complex, and elegant (on the downside, it can also taste a bit thin). Having said that, Pinot Noirs vary widely in taste and structure, so it’s not always dependable, which makes the joy of finding a good one well worth the effort. Mostly, the wines are fruit forward, especially in the ‘new world’ (i.e., North America, Australia, South Africa, South America) – some might even say ‘fruit bomb’. PN in France generally needs age to soften its tannic nature, but winemakers there can also be found creating early-drinking wines, which seriously can’t be beat in terms of flavor. On winelists, I typically see a PN from California or Oregon, which can have high alcohol and lots of fruit. Look for wines from Santa Barbara, Carneros and the Russian River wine region in California, where the cooler climates are giving rise to some excellent PN.
Malbec is a historical French grape, but the country that made it famous among wine drinkers outside France is Argentina. The main fruit flavors for Malbec grown in Argentina are blackberry, plum and black cherry. South West France has been growing Malbec for years just below Bordeaux (bet you didn’t know that), in a region called Cahors (where the grape is also known as ‘Cot’ – you might see that on a label instead of ‘Malbec’). Those wines have higher acidity than Malbecs from Argentina, with tart flavors of black currant, black plum and spice. With its high levels of alcohol and fruit, Malbec is not difficult to like. It pairs well with meats and cheeses and has a nice acid (when grown at a higher altitude) and tannic structure, which makes for a great choice.
Merlot has taken an image hit since the 1990s, when it was all the rage (at least here in the US – obviously prices for Bordeuax wines, which can be predominately Merlot, aren’t exactly falling). Merlot is a softer wine than Cabernet Sauvignon as it has lower tannins (which can be described as velvety in better wines) and lower acidity, making it a great wine to swill at the bar. Merlot can range from lighter to full-bodied, with appealing ripe-fruit flavors of strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, and plums… and chocolate! The ‘right bank’ of Bordeaux, premium wine region in France that straddles a wide body of water with vines grown on both sides, produces famous Merlot wines with elegance that can last decades. The two key regions there are Saint Emilion & Pomerol, the latter of which yields Petrus, one of the world’s most expensive wines (which most of us will never get to taste)… and guess what!? It’s Merlot! Take that, everyone who watched ‘Sideways’.
Cabernet Sauvignon (famously grown along the left bank of Bourdeaux, and now a million other places). You will pretty much find this on every wine list. Tends to be from California, Argentina or Chile. It’s easy to find great Cabernet from all over the world, but if you see a Washington State Cab on the menu, grab it! Cabernet has a typical flavor of black currant and an herbaceous quality. It’s a full-bodied wine that pairs well with lamb, grilled meat, and roasts – and if it’s from the US or sun-drenched places elsewhere, it’s often quaffable by the glass, though higher priced wines may need decanting and/or further ageing before broaching. As a high tannin wine, it’s not so good with acidic food like pasta & red sauce.
Chianti, Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino or Montepulciano (all Sangiovese grapes). I would say generally Chianti is on a wine list more than the others (though I do sometimes see Barolo or ‘Super Tuscan’ wines listed). Italian wines pair best with food. Chianti is generally an easy drinking wine with high acidity, that can taste like bitter cherries, violets and earthiness. Italian wines are ideal with food, not drunk alone. (hey, that never stopped anyone), so grab a cheese plate or some yummy pasta and drink away!