Swirl Girl: Four tips for ordering a great wine at a restaurant
If you've ever been awarded the honor of receiving the wine list upon being seated at a restaurant, only to open it and feel as though you were trying to decipher a foreign language, take heart. There's no reason you can't choose a winning wine for yourself (and your guests) every time you dine out. Herewith, a few tried-and-true techniques to help you order like a pro.
Ask the sommelier
This may seem like a no-brainer, but lots of the sommeliers in Denver would tell you that they're not utilized nearly as often as they should be. Some people feel intimidated by the prospect of approaching a sommelier (hell, plenty admit they're not even sure how to pronounce the damn word; for the record, it's 'somm-all-yay'); others fear the only role of the wine steward is to talk you into a fancy-pants wine that's way over your budget. Never fear: Simply ask your server to send over the somm (or if there's isn't one, ask for the server who really knows the list), then give them an idea of your budget, the kinds of wines you typically enjoy and perhaps a rundown of what the rest of the table is having to eat. Working with a wine professional is a win-win all the way around: The somm gets to do their job, you and your friends drink a great bottle of vino and you're likely to find a new favorite wine.
Stay in one country
Nearly any primer on wine pairing instructs you to choose wines which come from the same place as the food you're enjoying. This ordering technique can be as straightforward as the name as the restaurant you're eating in. Forking up steak frites from Bistro Vendome? A lusty Bordeaux is the way to go. Scarfing down osso buco at Panzano? Order a Barolo and call it a day. If you understand regional nuances, all the better. If not, just ask the server the origin of the dish, then seek out the corresponding portion of the wine list.
Know your food-friendly wines
Okay, so just when you'd agreed to step up to the plate and tackle the job of ordering wine for the table, life throws you a curve ball. Two people have ordered the seared Ahi tuna; another's gone with the burger and you've settled on pasta carbonara. The best course of action here is to find the middle ground. Chenin blanc, grüner veltliner, or unoaked chardonnays (like those from the Burgundy region of France) should be your go-to whites. All should have sufficient acid and mouthfeel to support a wide range of dishes. For reds, look to pinot noir, tempranillo (the grape found in red wines from Rioja), or red Côtes-du-Rhônes. These wines are typically less tannic than other reds and shouldn't be so aggressively high in alcohol as to clash with your meal.
Save the biggest for last
One of the more underappreciated pro techniques to apply when ordering wine is to start light and end big. The idea here is to avoid completely blowing out your palate (and thereby your ability to enjoy wine later in the evening) by pouring a boozy zinfandel with the oysters. The logic here is actually pretty unassailable - you generally wouldn't begin your meal with lamb chops, only to finish with the ceviche, right? Your tastebuds - and your guests -- will be awed by your skills as you guide them from light (think pinot grigio) to medium-bodied (perhaps a pinot noir) wines, before closing like a master with a full-throttled wine (maybe a petite syrah). Tie things up with a bow by ordering a decadent dessert wine and prepare to be in charge of the wine list from here on out.