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Handling the Wine List with Aplomb

Ottawa Business Journal – Executive Dining Guide

October 11, 2004

Today’s restaurant waiters no longer ask, “Who would like the wine list?”, rather the thick leather bound book is strategically placed in the middle of the table waiting to be explored.

“I don’t even bother taking a look at the wine list. I just order a bottle of their house wine.”, declares one person at your table. This approach is a ‘safe bet’, yet lacks the adventure of exploring the wine list. Today, a good restaurant’s wine lists tend to be brimming with wines that the owner and chef have personally tasted and selected to complement their menu, so why not see what options the restaurant has to offer beyond the house wine.

“I always ask the waiter for their recommendation.” This is a little more adventurous approach, however, unless the waiter inquires about your wine style preference and price range, you could be in for some surprises when the wine arrives at the table and another surprise when you receive the bill.

Selecting wines from a wine list can make some people uneasy, while others enjoy the opportunity to see what the restaurant has to offer. Choosing a wine from a wine list does not have to be an Olympic feat, and it should not break the bank, rather choosing a wine is a way to invite the world to your dinner table.

A wine lists isn’t simply a long inventory wines, rather, the list should reflect the restaurant’s style while complementing its cuisine and offer wines at a range of prices.

Over the years, Ottawa restaurants have made a conscious effort to help the customer in the decision making process of selecting a wine to complement your meal.  Many serving staff have had the opportunity to sample the wines on the restaurant’s list, while others have taken wine appreciation courses or the Sommelier accreditation program from Algonquin College which gives extensive training about grape varieties, wine making techniques, wine regions and food and wine matching.

In addition, you often will find in the wine list tasting notes from the chef describing the wine and the menu has suggested wines to complement each dish.

Several Ottawa restaurants have been recognized by Wine Spectator magazine, Enroute Magazine Awards and the Epicurean Awards for their wine related efforts. In September, Wine Spectator presented the largest number of awards to Ottawa restaurants todate. This is good news for the Ottawa restaurant scene. Wine Spectator’s top honour, Best of Award of Excellence for 2004, was granted to Trattoria Caffe Italia, Vittoria Trattoria (William Street location) and Le Baccara.  The Award of Excellence for 2004, was granted to Empire Grill, Fratelli, Les Fougeres, Luxe Bistro, Meditheo, Merlot, Perspectives, Restaurant 18, Signatures, Vittoria Trattoria (Rivergate Way location), and Wilfrid’s

“Have you selected a wine?”, inquires the waiter.

This is not your hurry-up-and-pick-a-wine-because

-it-is-not-that-difficult cue.  Rather, the waiter could be diplomatically saying that he would be willing to help you with your selection or is offering to serve you a glass of wine while you are reading the menu.  But you are in a cart-before-the-horse situation, as you want to choose a wine that complements the meal.  At this point, your table can consider ordering wines by the glass, or simply ask the waiter to give you more time. Don’t be in a hurry, as you want to choose wines that complements the various dishes that your table will be ordering.

Let’s make choosing the wine easier on yourself…

Tastes in wine is personal and not everyone likes the same style, grape variety or vintner.  Ask these questions of the others around the table to help narrow down your choices:

What appetizer and/or main entrée is each person ordering?

Which do you prefer – red or white?

What type of wine do people prefer (big jammy wines, medium or light weight, sweet or dry, oaky or crisp?)

Has anyone had a memorable wine recently that they would recommend?

More often than not, this exchange of perspectives on wine will start a conversation that may help you narrow down your selection even further. While listening to the conversation about wines and navigating the wine list, you are now in a better position to make an ‘informed’ decision.

Glancing over the tasting notes in the wine list and cross-referencing with the wine suggestions on the menu, your choice should start to become apparent.

Still perplexed?  Here are a few more tips:

Toss out the rule that white wine should be served with chicken and fish while red wine goes with red meat. Fish, chicken and meat are a canvas for the chef.  It is the sauce, spices or marinade that you want to enhance by selecting a wine that will complement their flavours.

Focus on the origin of the food.  Wine has been crafted for centuries to accompany regional food. For example, Italian wine goes well with Italian cuisine. Pairing the country of origin for both the food and wine is a natural fit.

Order half bottles or wine by the glass. Restaurants are offering more wines by the glass or in 375 mL bottles giving you the flexibility to try a variety of wines throughout the meal.

With these tips, choosing wines to enjoy with your meal no longer needs to be a daunting task. When the cork is popped, and you are offered the first pour to taste, swirl the wine in your glass, enjoy the aromas and flavours with the confidence that you have made a good selection for you and your guests.

Bon Appetite and Cheers!

SIDEBAR:

Classic wine and food matches:

Whites

– Sauvignon Blanc enhances fish with a lemon butter sauce

– Gewürztraminer pairs well with spicy Thai or Indian food

– Chardonnay is a good choice with a pasta with a cheese sauce

Reds

– Pinot Noir is an interesting match with poached or grilled salmon

– Syrah or Shiraz (same grape variety) complements a roast or rack of lamb with mint sauce

– Red Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon are ideal for peppery steaks or roast beef

– Beaujolais complements a roasted chicken

– Chianti goes well with a dish of pasta and a tomato based sauce

Debbie Trenholm is an accredited Sommelier who hosts fun and informative winemaker’s dinners, Sommelier led dinners and wine tastings for private and corporate clients and the general public. To receive invitations to The Savvy Grapes upcoming events, contact her at

“I don’t even bother taking a look at the wine list. I just order a bottle of their house wine.”, declares one person at your table. This approach is a ‘safe bet’, yet lacks the adventure of exploring the wine list. Today, a good restaurant’s wine lists tend to be brimming with wines that the owner and chef have personally tasted and selected to complement their menu, so why not see what options the restaurant has to offer beyond the house wine.

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