The first time I ordered wine in a restaurant, I was 19 and trying to impress a girl. I picked an expensive French wine that neither of us enjoyed, and cost me two days’ wages. If you are dining in a nice spot, ordering wine can be intimidating. There are ways to make it easier, though.
The first mistake most people make is ordering wine before knowing what they’re eating. This is an easy error, as the server thrusts the wine menu at you as soon as you sit. If you want something right away, order an aperitif (like a glass of sparkling wine) while you peruse the menu.
Most wine menus are arranged either by country or varietal, with wines by the glass on top. Let’s start with wines by the glass. Typically avoid the house wine. It may be the lowest price but it’s usually also the lowest quality, as restaurateurs know many diners will order it and they’ll make a good profit. A better choice is almost always the mid-priced wine by the glass on the list. If still in doubt stick with countries that consistently produce great wine at lower prices like Chile, Spain, and Argentina.
Both wines by the glass and bottle are usually arranged by price, from cheapest to most expensive. As a general rule, the more expensive the wine by the bottle is, the less markup the restaurant puts on it, knowing that most people won’t order it. This also gives the wine list an image of value at the higher end.
If there are two of you or more, the bottle is a better deal than individual glasses. Basically you pay for three glasses, and get the fourth free.
If you’re feeling experimental or the food pairing is really important, ordering by the glass gives you a chance to try different wines with each course.
Whatever you do, try something new. Why order the same wine you drink at home all the time? You can never go wrong following the theme of the restaurant. If the food is Italian, order Italian wine.
Match the style of wine with your food. Heavier dishes require a fuller bodied red wines, while lighter dishes work better with white wines and lighter reds. If in doubt, light to medium bodied wines like Italian Chianti, Spanish Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are food-friendly and versatile.
Ordering wine for a group of people is another minefield. Do you go expensive, middle of the road, or cheap? Whenever you’re stuck, rely on a knowledgeable server or sommelier. Share how much you’re willing to spend and ask for a recommendation.
If you are going out to an important dinner for work or a special occasion do some homework. Most restaurants’ menus are online; you can look pretty smart by knowing exactly what you are going to order as soon as you sit down.
The under-$25 wine review
Oyster Bay Chardonnay 2014
New Zealand, $21.99, NSLC
Best known for Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand makes many other great white wines. This wine is an example of the fresh, approachable style of the country’s famous Sauvignon Blanc, but in a Chardonnay. Fresh fruit flavours; mango and apricot dominate, with a nice touch of toasty oak on the finish. Nice, clean flavours and would score higher if it were a couple dollars cheaper. Pair with mussels steamed in a splash of the same wine. 89/100
Farmers of Wine Italian Red Blend 2014
Italy, $15.99, NSLC
Puglia is an up-and-coming region in southern Italy, overshadowed by its country’s more famous regions. Innovative packaging: a loose paper wrapper covers the bottle—an earthy theme. The wine has rustic appeal with some nice pepper and smoke. A burst of cherry fruit gives it a New World appeal. Pair with barbecued lamb chops and grilled vegetables. 89/100
80–84: A great sipper, good value.
85–89: Won’t last long, great value.
90–94: Brag to your friends and buy a case—fantastic.
95–100: A classic, run to the store, extremely rare.