It may take years to become a wine expert, but it only takes a few minutes to learn the basics. You'll never be intimidated by a wine list again.
Step 1: Do your homework Many restaurants feature their wine lists online. See what's on offer in advance of your dinner, and research any bottles that pique your interest.
TIP: The cheapest wine on the menu isn't necessarily a good value, because it's often the one that's marked up the most.
Step 2: Learn how to pair with food At the restaurant, decide what you're eating before choosing the wine. Pair lighter foods like fish, as well as spicy foods, with lighter, usually white wines. Match heavier fare like meat and cheese dishes with full-bodied wines, which often means red.
TIP: Choose a wine that comes from the same country or region as your cuisine.
Step 3: Know your palate Consider the grapes, regions, and styles you tend to enjoy, and share your preferences with the sommelier, who can make suggestions based on that information. Noting the wines you're interested in also signals your price range to the sommelier.
TIP: If you can't pronounce a wine, just point to it on the list. With any luck, the sommelier will pronounce it so you know for the future.
Step 4: Take age into account Take the year of the wine into account. In general, younger wines are fruitier and pair well with more complex dishes, whereas older wines are subtler and go better with straightforward food.
Step 5: Inspect it When the wine arrives, inspect the label to make sure it's what you ordered. Then, take a look at the cork – there's no need to sniff it. If it's dry and crumbly, the bottle may not have been stored properly.
TIP: If the bottle was sealed with a screw top, don't assume it's of lesser quality. Screw tops reduce the risk of spoilage, and top winemakers are using them more frequently.
Step 6: Sniff it After the wine is poured, tilt you glass slightly, gently swirl it, and sniff. If the wine smells moldy instead of floral, fruity, or spicy, it could be "corked," or contaminated by a fungus that affects flavor.
Step 7: Taste it Taste the wine by taking a sip and swirling it around in your mouth for second or two before swallowing. Taste for acid, sugar, and the level of alcohol. If any of these flavors stands out dramatically, the wine is not well balanced.
Step 8: Communicate Convey approval to the sommelier or server with a simple nod. If you think the wine is corked, or it tastes like vinegar, send it back. You'll have to live with it if it simply doesn't taste the way you thought it would.
FACT: A French researcher fooled professional wine tasters by switching the labels of cheap wine with pricey vintages and adding red food coloring to white wines.