Wine is a passion of mine. To me wine is an art and a game at the same time. It is a game to find wine you love and enjoy the art that went into making it. At Cornell I took professor Stephen Mutkoski‘s “Introduction to Wines” at the world-famous hospitality school. The class has been one of the most popular – and most failed – classes at Cornell since it was first taught in 1963. Luckily I managed to pass it! I still use a lot of the knowledge I gained in that class today and I thought I’d write a page about what I do when I’m faced with a massive wine menu at a restaurant.
How I Choose Wine at a Restaurant:
Before I start perusing the menu, I remind myself that restauranteurs are in the business of picking good wines, so it’s actually really hard to make a bad decision. There’s no pressure – it’s more like a scavenger hunt – you’re trying to find something interesting that everyone will enjoy.
First you have to determine what varietal of wine you want. This is the art of pairing. The simplest wine pairing is white wines with seafood and red wines with meat. After that, you can get really complicated with pairing. I’ve learned some wine pairing tips from the class and from my father’s friend Lou Bruno, like:
- The acidity of the wine should match the acidity of the dish. White wines from cold regions (New Zealand, Chablis in France, Carneros in California, etc.) tend of have higher acidity. Acid mellows with time, so younger wines tend to be more acidic. Not all acid is the same (in fact there are four types or organic acids: Tartaric, Malic, Lactic and Citric). Cheeses have lactic acid and pair well with red wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation. Duck with orange will have citric acid and would pair well with a younger white wine.
- Sweetness also needs to be matched – this is why sweet desserts and a sweet port wine go well together. Don’t mix a dry wine wine with a sweet dish.
- There is a Salty-Sweet Affinity – a salty smoked salmon dish goes well with a sweet Gewürztraminer. Salt makes tannins bitter – so avoid a tannic Malbec if you’re eating something salty like Chinese food.
- Salads are usually bad with wine because the vinegar in the dressing fights the wine.
- Tannins in wine act like a “scrubber,” so you need a hearty meal to stand up to tannic wine. A Malbec, Zinfandel or Chianti would go well with a “rustic” dish like stew. Fatty foods also pair well with tannic wines.
In general some of my favorite meals are duck, lamb and steak, so I tend to go with cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir more than other varietals.
Once you’ve picked the varietal you want, you need to choose a wine of that varietal. This is where things get a bit more complicated because they involve deciphering labels. New world wines are labeled by their varietal (making it very simple), while old world wines are labeled by their geography (requiring you to memorize which varietals grow in each region). When you’re at a wine store, you get the advantage of looking at the full labels. A wine label is the “birth certificate” of the wine and tells you when, where, how and by whom the wine was made. In a restaurant you get far less data – often only the name of the wine and the vintage year – so you have to make a lot more assumptions. If you really want to look like a genius, many restaurants have their wine menus online (although they’re often not fully up to date), so you can do your research beforehand. Once you have a varietal in mind, it helps to narrow your search down to a region. After you’ve picked a region and found your varietal, you can choose from just a few bottles on the menu. At this point, it is helpful to know how wines are sorted geographically in each region. In general, the more specific the geography, the higher quality the wine. But unfortunately, there isn’t any standardized geographic labeling system around the world, so it helps to know a bit about each region:
For California wines, I first look at the varietal. By California law, 75% of the grapes must be of that varietal. Second, I look at geography. Generally speaking, the more specific they get, the better the wine. There are 4 ways to labels the geography of a California wine:
- “California” means 100% of the grapes were grown in the state
- County like “Sonoma County” means 75% of the grapes were grown within that specific county
- AVA (American Viticultural Area) like “Carneros” or “Arroyo Grande Valley” – means 85% of the grapes were grown in that AVA. There are over 100 AVAs in California, so it pays to memorize the ones you like.
- Vineyard like “Hillcrest Vineyard” means 95% of the grapes come from that specific vineyard
After I’ve narrowed down the geography for a Califonria wine I look for details on the maker. Only three phrases in California are regulated and tell you who made the wine: “Estate Bottled,” “Produced by” and “Made by.” Other phrases like “bottled by,” “cellared by,” “vinted by” and “blended by” don’t actually tell you who made the wine. Also, the word “Reserve” is not a controlled term in California, so it’s basically meaningless.
For Oregon wines, the signature varietal is Pinot Noir and the Willamette Valley is Oregon’s best Wine region. BTW, Willamette rhymes with “damnit.” Oregon labeling laws are stricter than California. They require a 90% minimum varietal (vs California’s 75%), although cabernet sauvignon can be 75%. Labeled regions must have 100% of their grapes from that region. When looking at Oregon wines, the more specific the geography, the better. Oregon also doesn’t allow any generic names like “burgundy” to be used. I’m a big fan of Willamette pinot noirs, and have never been disappointed when choosing one at a restaurant.
The signature Washington varietal is Merlot and their biggest region is the Colombia Valley. Washington varietal labels must be 75% (like California) and AVAs must be 95%.
The Southern Hemisphere produces some great, under-appreciated wines. New Zealand is known for their Sauvignon Blanc but also makes some pretty nice Pinot Noir. Their most important wine region is Marlborough. Austrailia is known for their Chardonnay and Shiraz. South Africa is best known for “pinotage” (a cross of pinot noir and cinsault), which I personally don’t like. Uruguay produces a red called tannat. Argentina‘s signature red grape is Malbec, which is grown in two important regions: Mendoza and San Juan. Nicolas Cateneu has been called the “Robert Mondavi of Argentina” and makes great Malbecs. Chile produces some good Pinot Noir, but their signature red varietal is the Carmenére, which tastes like Merlot. Chile’s main wine region is Casablanca. Los Vascos is a Chilean vineyard owned by Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, which makes some great reds. The word “Reserve” is an unregulated term in places like New Zealand and South Africa, so it is basically meaningless.
Spain‘s most important region is Rioja, which has been called the “Napa Valley of Spain.” The most important Spanish red varietal is Tempranillo. The other Spanish varietals are sometimes hard to remember, but it helps to compare them to other more common varietals. Albariño tastes like a Riesling. Mencia tastes like Cabernet Franc. Parraleta tastes like a mix of Zinfandel and Syrah. Cava is one of the best Champagne alternatives you can buy. I’ve been told that if you see Godello or Txakoli varietals, buy them, because they are some of the best values in wine today. The Spanish geographic classification system, from least to most specific is:
- Vino de Mesa – “Table Wine”
- Vino de la Tierra
- Denominación de Origen (DO)
- Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa)
Portugal is obviously known for their port wines, but the Douro wines, which are fortified into port wine, are some of the best wines I know of. Portuguese geographic classifications are similar to Spain’s, with least to most specific:
- Vinho de Mesa – “Table Wine”
- Vinho Regional – Wines from 8 large regions
- Indicacão de Proveniência Regulamentada (IPR) – “Indication of Regulated Provenance”
- Denominacão de Origem Controlada (DOC)
Italy has three main wine regions, each with their own signature varietal. Tuscany has Sangiovese. Piedmont has Nebbiolo. Tre Venezie has Pinot Grigio. Tuscany is perhaps the most well known region, with famous DOCG sub-regions like Chianti. The lesser-known Piedmont region has some in notable sub-regions like Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco. Some words to look out for with Italian wines, which can indicate superior quality are “Classico,” “Riserva” and “Superiore.”
Italy’s geographic classifications from least to most specific are:
- Vino da Tavola (VDT) – “Table Wine”
- Indicazione Geografiche Tipiche (IGT) – “Indication of Typical Geographic Origin”
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) – “Denomination of Controlled Origin”
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) – “Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin”
French wines are by far the most complicated in terms of understanding the labels. In general, they are regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This system has been copied throughout Europe, with the DOC in Italy, DO in Spain, and the DOC in Portugal. In order from least to most specific geography, French wines are labeled:
- Vins de Table – Table Wine (which can still be very good!) – grapes can be from anywhere in France
- Vins de Pays (d’Oc) – From a broad region of France
- Vins Delimites Qualite Superieure (VDQS) – from a region showing promise of becoming an AOC (only 1% of French wine is labeled as VDQS, so you’ll probably never see one)
- Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) – From a specific controlled region, like Burgundy or the Loire Valley
France also has a system of “négociants” who negotiate the purchase of grapes from vineyards and produce and sell bottles. The important word to watch out for is “par.” Bottles that were produced by négociants will say something like:
- Mis en bouteilles par – bottled for
- Mis en bouteille dans nos caves par – bottled in our cellars for
- Élevé et mis bouteilles par – aged and bottled for
- Vinifé, élevé et mis bouteilles par – made, aged and bottled for
- Récolté, vinifié, élevé et mis en bouteilles par – Harvested, made, aged and bottled for
Bottles that are produced by the vineyard will say something like:
- Mis en bouteille au domaine – Bottled at the estate
- Mis au domaine – Bottled at the estate
- Mis en bouteille à la propriété – Bottled at the property
- Mis en bouteille au château – Bottled at the château
- Mis du château – Bottled at the château
- Mis par le propriétaire – Bottled by the proprietor
A few words you’ve got to watch out for are “caves” or “chais” and “région de production” – this usually means the grapes were grown outside of the estate and aren’t of the same quality as an estate bottled wine. These bottles will say something like:
- Mis en bouteille dans nos caves – Bottled in our cellars
- Mis en bouteille dans nos chais – Bottled in our cellars
- …dans la région de production – Means the wine was produced from grapes from a region
It helps to memorize the names of the négociants that you’ve enjoyed wine from before. Louis Jadot Is one of the largest négociants and I’ve always enjoyed their wines.
The French Loire Valley is known for white wines like Chenin Blanc, Vouvray, Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre (opposite the river from Pouilly Fumé). The Alsace region is known for Geürztraminer.
France’s Bordeaux region in southwest is the largest AOC region in France and one of the largest wine producing regions on earth. Bordeaux produces mostly red wines from varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdeaux. Bordeaux is broken up into the left bank and the right bank of the Gronne river. The important AOCs on the left bank are Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan. The most important AOCs on the right bank are St. Emilion and Pomerol. St. Emilion is mostly Merlot. Médoc and Graves are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Bordeaux geographic labeling is, from least to most specific:
- Regional – like “AOC Bordeaux”
- Sub Regional – like “Haut Médoc”
- Commune – like “AOC Margaux”
- Chateau – like “Château d’Issan”
Bordeaux also has a highly selective club of 61 “growth” wines, dating from a highly-contested 1855 exposition. These range from “fifth growth” to “first growth.” Any Bordeaux wine that says “Grand Cru Classé” is a member of this club. The very best Bordeaux wines come from the five “first growth” chateaus:
- Chateau Lafite-Rothschild
- Chateau Latour
- Chateau Margaux
- Chateau Haut-Brion
- Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (which was elevated from a second growth in 1973 and is a whole other complicated story)
Unless you’re some kind plutocrat, drinking a first growth wine is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if you’re at a restaurant and see any “growth” wine for a reasonable price, you’re almost guaranteed it will be good. In 2007, while I was living in Singapore, I had the honor of enjoying a couple Chateau Lafite-Rothschild wines with Christophe Salin, the CEO of Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite. I was far too inexperienced to fully understand how amazing the wines were, but the experience has fueled my passion for wines since. I’ve even kept the menu all of these years.
The Burgundy AOC region in the Southeast of France is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. People say that you buy Bordeaux wine with your head, but you buy Burgundy wine with your heart. Burgundy wine production is just 1/6th of Bordeaux production. Burgundy has its own subset of classifications, from least to most specific:
- Côteaux Bourguignons – the lowest classification – grapes can come from anywhere in Burgundy – the label will usually say “Appellation Bourgogne Contrôlée“
- AOC Bourgogne – all grapes must come from a single AOC region – the label will have the name of the region, like “Pouilly Fuissé” or “Chablis”
- Commune or Village – there are 55 communes – the label will have the name of the village by itself, like “Chambolle-Musigny” – village names are hyphenated (Chambolle is the village, Musigny is the name of the villages most famous vineyard)
- Premier Cru – The “First Growth” wines – 562 vineyards – the label will have the name of the village and the vineyard together with the vineyard name on the line below the village name, like “Chambolle-Musigny / Les Charmes” or “Santeney / Clos De Malte” (BTW “Clos” means the vineyard is enclosed by a stone wall) – must be aged for 3 to 5 years
- Grand Cru – the “Great Growth” wines – 33 vineyards producing just 1.5% of Burgundy production – the label will have the name of the vineyard by itself without the village name above it, like “Musigny” – these are some of the best wines in the world and must be aged at least 5 to 7 years.
If I’ve narrowed down my varietal and my geography and I still can’t choose a wine, there are still a few tricks up my sleeve. One is to memorize the names of a few importers whose wine you’ve enjoyed. If you see their name again on a different wine, the odds are you will enjoy it. Sometimes menus will have a ranking of certain wines on a 100 point scale. There is almost no difference between a 89 point wine and a 92 point wine – anything past the 80s is going to be nice. If you see a wine labeled as organic, besides not being able to use pesticides, the grower is also not able to add sulfides. If I see a wine labeled as organic, I almost always buy it – mostly because I want to support the practice, but also because it’s been my experience that they’ve usually very good. If you’ve gotten through all of this and still haven’t figured out what you want to order, you can either ask your waiter for a recommendations or just take a wild guess – sometimes choosing a random wine allows you a serendipitous discovery of something wonderful. Again, restaurateurs are in the business of picking good wines, so it’s actually really hard to make a bad decision.
Once you’ve ordered the wine, you’re not out of the clear yet. There are still some things to do:
- When the wine is presented to you by the waiter, check the label and vintage date to make sure they matched what you ordered. The last thing you want to do is order a $40 bottle and accidentally drink a $2000 bottle! Also check the space between the wine and the bottom of the cork – if it is too low, the wine may be bad.
- Once the wine is opened, check the cork – if it is wet all the way up the side or crumbly, it’s likely that air got into the wine, causing oxidation. It is also smart to check that the labeling on the cork matches the wine – wine fraud is an increasing threat for high end wines.
- When tasting the wine, I’m checking for the following defects:
- Sulfur Dioxide – causes a stinging sensation in the nasal passage
- Hydrogen Sulfide – smells like rotten eggs
- Mercaptans – smells skunky or like rotten cabbage
- Oxidation – tastes very bland
- Maderized – tastes “cooked” – like sherry with nutty flavors
- Corked – smells like a musty attic
- Dekkera/Brettanomyces – smells like a barnyard – smells “mousey” or “horsey”
- Sorbate – smells like Pez candy
- Pediococcus – smells like dirty socks in an old gym
Wines do go bad. It’s rare, but eventually you will come across a bad bottle. Good etiquette is to ask for a second opinion before sending the wine back.
I keep track of the wines I’ve enjoyed here: http://www.snooth.com/profiles/WillMartin/
Here are some recent wines I’ve liked: