Wine list basics

Ordering from a wine list is easier that you think. Matthew Sullivan takes you through the tips and tricks
Ordering from a wine list is easier that you think. Matthew Sullivan takes you through the tips and tricks

You are in a restaurant. The waiter opens a wine you’ve selected and presents you with the cork. You hold it to your nose but are not sure why. You nod. He splashes a sample into your glass and the conversation stops. Can you even taste the wine with everyone staring at you? You nod again, signalling your approval with the determination of an officer sending his soldiers over the top of a trench, but beneath your confident approval you have no idea if you’ve signed off on a beautiful bottle, or condemned your table to a wretched bottle of plonk.

Everyone knows this agonizing story, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Approving your wine selection is just like doing your laundry or shredding incriminating documents: once you know the basics, it becomes second nature. Let’s start with the cork: it’s a red herring. Unless it has crumbled into the wine or is as soft as a rotten fruit, ignore it.

What about the sample? Your primary task is to determine if it’s spoiled. That’s easy too. Most faulty wines are apparent by smell alone. If it reeks of a musty basement, nail polish remover, or a turd, something is wrong. These are ripe and obvious odours, but if you’re in doubt, ask the waiter for a second opinion. He’s dying for a drink anyway.

Use the sample to assess the wine’s temperature. Whites must be cold. Reds should be cool. In many restaurants your Shiraz will arrive at your table the same temperature as bathwater, but you can ask for an ice bucket. Don’t be shy — warm red wine is as refreshing as a mug of cake batter.

Selecting the wine is tricky. I avoid celebrated areas like Burgundy, Bordeaux, or California. They all produce stellar wine, but get priced extortionately in restaurants. Overlooked countries provide the best value, and indicate that the sommelier is on her game (see sidebar).

The markup can be huge at a restaurant and, unfortunately, it’s higher (300-400 percent) on the cheapest wines. Expensive wines will be less marked-up (often less than 100 percent) but are usually served much too young, which means that they taste tight and closed. I ask for a decanter to help their flavours expand. If you’re still stumped, my advice is to get advice.

Taylor Thompson, the sommelier at Reds (77 Adelaide Street West, Toronto), says sommeliers sometimes underprice their favourites to encourage people to try them. Ask for “a hidden gem” he says, and maybe you’ll get one.

Terra Incognito

Get the most from a wine list by discovering wines from up-and-coming regions and local craft wineries:

  • Regions in the south of France like Minervois, Costières de Nîmes, and Cahors make complex, earthy wines at a fraction of the price of the more popular Côtes du Rhône.
  • Spanish and Portuguese reds are generally excellent value.
  • For white wines, try Austria.
  • There’s no taste like home. Restaurants often showcase local craft wineries with a reduced mark-up. Ontario’s white wines and Pinot Noirs are getting better every year.

Torres Gran CoronasInto the short cellar:

Torres Gran Coronas
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2004
($18.95, Vintages Essential #036483) This is a wine you want in your cellar. Miguel Torres is a leading light in Spanish wines and here he has created something bold, complex, and evolving. Blackberries and espresso swirl up from the glass. It’s so powerful that I will age it for two to five years, then drink it with raw elk that I kill with my bare hands.

Out of the short cellar:

Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2004Liberty School
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004
I recommended this in the Fall 2007 issue of Precedent. Aging it in the Short Cellar for one year has made it soft and ripe, with voluptuous flavours of raspberry and warmed milk chocolate. Just a little bit of time has transformed Liberty into a libertine. 2004 is gone now, but its uptight cousin 2005 is available in the LCBO now − in a year, she’ll let her hair down, too.