The approaching festive season means that its highly likely that you’ll either be invited to, or attend, a restaurant in the coming months.
Whilst office parties rely on set menus and transient wine choices, more intimate gatherings can potentially propose certain wine-specific theatrics and, if you don’t know why you’re doing them they can cause confusion and even prompt cries of wine snobbery!
The most obvious example is the server asking you to taste the wine before you ‘accept’ it, which people often delegate to other members of the party as they don’t feel qualified enough to pass judgement. Far from expecting that you are an instant wine connoisseur being given a last-minute option to double check that you’ve made an informed and delicious decision from the menu, or even a ‘get out of jail free’ card if you don’t like the wine you’ve selected, it’s simply a quality control check.
Wine is a living, evolving, drink, and the theatre derives from proprietors letting customers sample the contents to ensure that the bottle has been correctly stored and is free of impairments. Tasting the wine, the perceived scary element, is actually largely unnecessary. A dull colouring or an unexpected/pungent aroma will tell you all you need to know about the wine quality before it ever hits your lips.
Comedian Michael McIntyre does a wonderful routine (worth checking out on YouTube) where he mocks the perceived ‘try-before-you-buy’ wine process, and the fact that it is offered for no other beverage. Should customers be allowed to know the breeding of the cows providing the milk in their cappa-frappa-cino’s?
Ultra-pretentious establishments may ask if you want to sniff the recently removed cork. Once again, as the bacterial taint in wine historically came from the cork base touching the wine, this is a theatrical dinosaur rolled out to identify faults.
If you’re unsure which bottle to select, the best advice I can offer is to simply trust the wine list or, if you’re at an upmarket establishment with a wide-ranging selection, trust the sommelier. Apart from the larger chains or less attentive establishments where wines may be listed on availability and profit margin alone, most restaurateurs are attuned to the implications of customers getting it wrong.
Well aware that food and wine matching is a key part of the full sensory experience of eating out, much work goes in to the finished wine list, ensuring it complements the menu in the best possible way. Sommeliers spend years training with the one desire of highlighting the best wines, based on customer preferences, food matches and individual budget.
Restaurants with a culinary direction will have also already done the hard yards for you so you can be confident buying a bottle of a grape variety you’ve not tried or heard of before. Steak restaurants will list wines that go well with steak, Italian restaurants will list wines that go well with Italian food and so on.
Whatever you go for, in pretty much every case, the wine that goes best with a meal is the wine that is freely flowing.