Thanks to the advent of self-service in wine retailing, about the only time we have to make a public statement about wine and our wine preferences is when ordering in a restaurant, pub or bar. In fact for most consumers this is probably the only time that they have actually to pronounce wine names, and it is certainly the time that they pay most for the pleasure of drinking wine.
How much to pay?
It is standard practice in restaurants with high overheads to calculate prices on the wine list by doubling, trebling and sometimes even quadrupling the basic wholesale prices. It is native to expect a restaurateur to sell wine at exactly the same price as a wine retailer . he or she has all sorts of extra bills to pay , not to mention the coast of building up a cellar. But you can ensure that the premium you pay for drinking wine in a restaurant is kept to a minimum: wherever a straight percentage mark-up is applied it is pure folly to go for one of the seriously grand wines and it makes sound financial sense to order one of the cheapest bottles on the wine list. A benevolent minority of restaurateurs add something closer to a standard cash mark-up to all bottles, no matter what the price , in order to encourage customers to buy something special to go with what one hopes is a superior standard of cooking. Unfortunately, however, you need to know quite a lot about wine and wine prices to take advantage of this sensible approach.
Some safe choices
The following have been chosen because they are relatively inexpensive, go with a wide range of foods and poorly made examples are relatively rare.
- South African sauvignon blanc (cheap but can be thin)
- Alsace whites, especially pinot blanc
- Many chardonnays, especially St-veran and other maconnais whites and good bottling from California and Australia
- Corbieres, minervois and coteaux de Languedoc with a chateau or domaine name
- Beaujolais-villages or cru Beaujolais (Morgon, Moulin-a-vent, julienas, chenas,regnié, brouilly, cotes-de-brouilly, fleurie, st-amour and chiroubles)
- Estate bottled cotes-du-rhone and gigondas, bourgueil, chinon, anjou-villages.
The great tasting ritual
The joke about this often embarrassing restaurant practice is that few of those who offer or taste the initial sample from the bottle ordered have a clue why they are doing it. The great wine-tasting ritual has its origins in a time when the wine was much less reliably stable and healthy than it has become.
The customer is meant to be checking the temperature and that the wine is not out of condition (corked, oxidized, refermenting, hazy ). To check this, all you need do is look to see that the wine is clear and still (unless it is meant to be sparkling) and then smell it to ensure it smells clean and not musty or mould. This tasting has nothing to do with whether you like the wine or not.
You can send the wine back only if it has one of the faults listed above, in which case the restaurateur can return it to be supplier and get a refund or replacement. Because I am paranoid about seeming a fussy wine bore, I probably err on the side of caution, but I have sent wine back only 3 or 4 times in 20 years of tasting wine and dining out, by saying I think this wine is corked /oxidized/refermenting/hazy. The wine should be presented by the way to whoever ordered it. It is then up to them to suggest someone else tastes it if they’d rather. Despite the ceremony of some wine waiters, or sommeliers, sniffing the cork is no reliable guide to the condition of the wine.
Wine with bits of cork floating in it by the way is not corked. These are harmless cork fragments which may be the result of an inefficient corkscrew. They should simply be scooped out with a spoon (although many waiters have the annoying habit of whisking away the entire glass-of wine you have paid for-and pouring a new one).
Wine by the glass
This is fantastically good idea, imaginatively executed by most American restaurants and completely ruined in most British pubs. Now that wine is such a democratic drink (and usually well made) and it is so easy to preserve wine leftover, there is no excuse for serving out of condition filth by the glass.
Some commonly mispronounced names
riesling Reece-ling Rize-ling
moet Mow-it Mo-way
montrachet Mon-rashay Mont-raashay