Restaurant Wine Service

There can be great inconsistencies in the quality of wine service provided by restaurants. There are no regulations regarding the quality or reliability of the information provided to patrons wanting to purchase wine to complement their meal.

In some establishments the wait staff is responsible for answering wine related questions and offering suggestions.  Others will have a wine steward who may or may not be knowledgeable about wine and the selections they offer.  In restaurants only offering a house red or house white, it probably doesn’t matter if staff doesn’t have a good understanding about wine.  However, where there is a reasonably sized wine list, a knowledgeable wine server can be of great benefit.

A good restaurant wine server will not automatically try to upsell you on purchasing a more expensive wine. They should respect your desired price point.  Your server should also not lecture you on what you should select.  A good server will leave you feeling knowledgeable and provide you with options.

Generally speaking, your server should be able to assist you with 3 preferences:  colour (red, white, rosé or sparkling), weight (richness), and price.

Some higher end restaurants will have a sommelier on staff.  She or he is a trained and knowledgeable designated wine professional specializing in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. The role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter.

A sommelier may be responsible for the development of wine lists, as well as the delivery of wine service and training for the other restaurant staff. Working along with the culinary team, they pair and suggest wines that will best complement each particular food menu item. This entails the need for  knowledge of how food and wine, beer, spirits and other beverages work in harmony. A professional sommelier also works on the floor of the restaurant and is in direct contact with restaurant patrons.

If you get the opportunity to consult with a sommelier it can be a very rewarding and educational experience.

I have had both wonderful and terrible experiences with restaurant wine servers.  However, it is the bad ones I tend to remember.  Oncein a restaurant in Toronto I had selected a wine only to be told by my server that the varietal I selected was unreliable and very inconsistent from one bottle to the next. Instead, he suggested a wine considerably more expensive.  Realizing that what I was being told was a complete fabrication and that he was only interested in upselling me, I was not swayed from my original decision which I did not regret in the least.

A good wine server or sommelier can be a valuable resource in helping you get the most out of your dining experience.  The challenge is being able to identify the bad ones and dismiss them before they convince you to purchase a wine you don’t really want.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Spain

Spain seems to fly under the radar compared to neighbouring France when it comes to wine notoriety. Spain is actually the third largest wine producer in the world and has the most land dedicated to vineyards, having over a million acres. Spanish wines range from great value to the highly prestigious.

There are over 60 different regional districts producing everything from light and zesty Albariño to inky black Monastrell.

Spain consists of 7 distinct climate regions which are described as follows:

Northwest “Green” Spain

Galicia is the only sub-region where lush green valleys are plentiful and the common cuisine includes lots of fresh fish. Albariño is the champion grape of the sub-region called Rias Baixas (REE-us BYE-shus), which skirts the coast. The area specializes in zesty white wines and a few aromatic red wines made with Mencía (men-THI-yah) grapes.

Mediterranean Coast

The coast is a very diverse macro-region that contains the sub-regions of Valencia, Catalonia and Murcia. Catalonia is known for Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and a highly acclaimed red wine sub-zone, Priorat. Valencia and Murcia are warmer growing regions that produce a bulk of value wines from deep red Monastrell to aromatic white Malvasia and the widely planted Airén.

Ebro River Valley

The sub regions of La Rioja and Navarra are found in the Ebro River Valley. Here, Tempranillo is king and long-standing bodegas such as Lopez de Heredia and Marques de Murrieta make age-worthy wines. Navarra is known mostly for rosado (rosé) wine made with the Garnacha (aka Grenache) grape. The region also produces oak-aged white wines of Viura (Macabeo). In Basque country, zesty white wines called Txakoli (pronounced “CHAK-o-li”) are common.

Duero River Valley

The Duero River is the same river as the Douro in Portugal. This region is notable for the minerally white wine, Verdejo, of Rueda and the bold red wines of Toro, Ribera del Duero and Leon. The wine grape of this region is Tempranillo and in Toro it’s called Tinta de Toro, where it is considered to be a slight mutation of the Tempranillo grape.

Central Plateau

The central plateau or Meseta Central is the inner plateau of Spain which is home to the capital city, Madrid. Some of the best value red wines of Spain can be found here made of Garnacha, Tempranillo and even the rare, Petit Verdot.

Andalucía

Andalucía is a very hot and dry region famous for Sherry.  The even hotter, Montilla-Moriles produces fortified dessert wines that are called PX. An aged PX, such as those from Bodegas Toro Abala, have similar nutty-date flavors like Tawny Port.

The Islands (includes The Canary Islands)

The Islands of Spain offer a wide range of wines from Listan Negro-based reds to dessert wines made with Moscatel. The volcanic soils of the Canary Islands add a gritty taste of rustic minerality. Currently, there are very few exporters of the limited wines of the Islands of Spain although you can find a few from places like Tenerife.

My personal favourite Spanish wines include the red wines of Rioja, which are typically developed from the Tempranillo grape and primarily blended with the Garnacha grape.

Rioja wines are classified by the amount of time spent aging in barrels and bottles before they are offered for sale.  The classifications are legal terms that indicate the quality level and aging requirements.

Crianza wines are aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year.  They then must be bottled a few months before being available for sale.

A Reserva wine must be oaked for a minimum of a year followed by at least 2 years in the bottle before being sold.

Lastly, Gran Reserva wines are made only with the best grapes, which have been hand-picked.  These wines must spend a minimum of 2 years in an oak barrel with an additional 3 years in the bottle before being sold.

Generally speaking, Rioja wines have a much better price point than similar quality wines from other countries.  Spain produces excellent wines at an affordable price and are well worth considering the next time you are shopping for wine.

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Wine Scoring & Ratings

When searching for new wines to try, scoring/rating systems may provide some insight as to which ones may be worth your while.  However, having said this, it is important to keep in mind that any rating is only the opinion of the reviewer who completed it. 

A score isn’t the be all and end all.  In addition to looking at the number or symbol, it is important to consider the complete tasting notes in order to get a fuller understanding of what the particular wine is about.   Without the tasting notes the rating is of little value as the notes explain what the reviewer considered when completing their assessment.

If you can find the vintners notes those can provide important insight as well.  The vintner’s notes would most likely be located through the winery’s web site.  However, these are not always published.

Ratings can be most useful to you if you can find a critic whose likes and dislikes are similar to your own.   However, keep in mind that all rating systems are very subjective.  There really is no science involved in completing the scorings.  The beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Wines that are scored between 85 and 90 often provide the best value as price can be influenced by ratings and popularity.  Demand tends to be greater for the highest rated wines though the quality is very similar to wines rated in the high 80’s.  The difference may only be that the vines on the higher rated wine are older or of a particular heritage.  Neither of which may provide a difference in taste for the average consumer.

The higher rated wines may contain more tannin and acid, making them good candidates for cellaring.  However, if you are just looking for a good wine to drink over the next few months, a wine rated between 85 and 90 will be well worth the investment

You will find that not all wines will be scored.  This is often because they are not able to be reviewed by the critics before being released for sale to the public.  The fact that there is no rating doesn’t mean that the wine is bad or inferior.

Here is a quick review of the common rating systems that you may come across in your wine exploring adventures.

The 100 Point System

This system was made popular by Robert Parker Jr. and has been commonly used since the early 1980’s.  It is used by the majority of critics today. 

This approach automatically assigns each wine reviewed with 50 points.  Up to an additional 5 points are awarded for colour and appearance; a maximum of 15 additional points for aroma; up to 20 more points for flavour and finish; and up to 10 points for overall quality.

The 5-Star Scale

This scale was derived based on the common hotel-rating system.  5 stars represent outstanding quality; 4.5 stars indicate excellent quality, verging on outstanding; 4 stars represents excellent quality; 3.5 stars indicate very good quality; and finally 3 stars indicate good quality.

3-Glass Scale

3 glasses indicates an excellent wine in its category; 2 glasses is a very good to excellent wine in its category; and finally 1 glass indicates good wine in its category.

Remember the most important wine critic you should pay attention to is you.  You know better than anyone what wines you like.

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To Breathe or Not To Breathe

Decanting oxygenates the wine, making it taste brighter and aromatic.  The amount of decanting time varies depending on the wine.  Generally, 2 to 3 hours is the most you would want to decant a wine for before serving.  However, unlike whisky, wine should not be left in the decanter indefinitely; 12 hours is the max.  You can keep opened wine for about 3 to 5 days but that wine needs to be stored in the re-corked bottle (whether the original cork or a wine stopper) in a cool dark place, such as your fridge.  Generally sweeter wines will keep longer than dry wines.

Unfiltered wines should definitely be decanted as there is a good chance there will be sediment in the bottle.  Most wines are filtered but some are not.  It would be helpful if unfiltered wines stated so somewhere on the label but I have found that you can’t count on that.  If there are vintner notes for the wine, those will note if the wine is unfiltered.

Unfiltered wines should be passed through a strainer when being poured into the decanter to catch the various bits of stem and grape skin.

Young wines don’t require it because they are already full of oxygen and aroma but older wines need to be decanted if you want to experience the aroma.  However, as a rule of thumb, it is recommended that a wine that is 20 years old or more should not be allowed to decant before serving.  In this special situation decanting would cause the wine to lose some of its bouquet and flavour.  That being said, it is a good idea to filter these wines as they are being poured since they will most likely contain sediment that will have accumulated during the extended aging process.

Wine decanters themselves come in a variety of shapes, sizes and price points.  Most, like wine glasses, will be widest in the base.  This allows for the most efficient oxygenation to occur.  Unless you want your decanter to double as a display piece, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on one.  Your local kitchen or home décor store should have a good selection to choose from.

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The Wines of Italy

Italy governs its wine industry in a similar manner as the French by using an appellation system of wine categorization.  There are 21 regions that contain a rather large number of red and white varietals.  Many of these grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, are common throughout many parts of the new and the old world. 

Other varietals such as, Barbera, Corvina, Molinara, Nebbiolo, Rondinella, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano, are more exclusive to Italy.  It is these grapes that give Italian wines their distinguished flavour.

Italian Whites

Italian white wines come in varieties that run from sparkling and sweet to smooth and fruity to crisp and dry. The following variety of whites will generally be found at your local wine merchant:

Asti is a sparkling wine made from Moscato grapes in Piedmont.  It is a sweet wine and low in alcohol, with fruity and floral flavors.

Frascati is composed mainly from Trebbiano grapes. It is generally dry or slightly off-dry, light-bodied, and un-oaked.

Gavi is made from Cortesa grapes which create this dry, medium-bodied wine from Piedmont. It is generally un-oaked or slightly oaked.

Orvieto is generally a medium-bodied wine made mainly from Grechetto grapes in the Umbria region. It is dry, and crisp, with fruit undertones.

Pinot Grigio is a light-bodied, dry, crisp wine that contains no oak.  It is made from Pinot Gris grapes.

Soave is produced in the Veneto region.  This wine mainly consists of Garganega grapes, which give it a dry, crisp, un-oaked, and light- or medium-bodied flavour.

Verdicchio is a dry, medium-bodied, crisp white wine. It is made from Verdicchio grapes in the Marche region.

Italian Reds

As with the whites, the reds come in a variety of styles.

Amarone is a full-bodied wine produced from partially-dried Corvina grapes.   It is a dry and firm wine but does have a hint of sweetness.  It is best paired with rich, savoury foods or flavourful cheeses.

Barbaresco is similar to Barolo (described below), as it is produced from the same Nebbiolo grapes.  However, it is generally a little lighter in body and a little less expensive. This wine is one that can usually be laid down for some time.  It is best from between 8 and 15 years of age.

Barbera is mainly produced in the Piedmont region. It is characteristically dry, light- or medium-bodied, and has an intense berry flavor, lots of acidity, and but little tannin.

Barolo is one of my personal favourites.  It is dry and full-bodied.  Barolo is produced from Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont and contains complex aromas and flavours. It is a wine that improves with age and is best enjoyed at 10 to 20 years of age, depending on the producer.

Brunello di Montalcino is a full-bodied, intense, concentrated wine produced from Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany. Dry and quite tannic, it is best enjoyed when it’s at least 15 years old.

Chianti is a very dry, medium-bodied, moderately tannic wine that is created mainly from Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany. “Chianti Classico” is often the best.  Wines labeled “riserva”, and more expensive wines, are generally more concentrated and can be aged for a period of time.

Lambrusco is most commonly a sweet, fizzy wine.  It is made from Lambrusco grapes usually from the Emilia-Romagna region.  These wines are also available in both dry and sparkling styles.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is generally a medium-bodied wine but there are some lighter variations.  It is a very easy-drinking wine that is produced in the Abruzzo region.

Salice Salentino is a dry, full-bodied wine produced from Negroamaro grapes in part of the Puglia region. Generally it has intense aromas and flavors of ripe, plummy, baked fruit, and rich, dense texture. It is best paired with robust foods so as not to over-power the meal.

Valpolicella is a medium-bodied wine created mainly from Corvina grapes in the Valpolicella area of the Veneto region.  It is dry, lean, and only moderately tannic, with more or less intense cherry aromas and flavors. Some versions, such as single-vineyard wines, are particularly good.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is medium-bodied, dry, and lean, with red cherry flavor, similar to Chianti but slightly fuller.  It is produced from Sangiovese grapes in Montepulciano, in the Tuscany region.

If you are not familiar with Italian wines there are a number that I would recommend trying.  If you like white wine, Pinot Grigio and Verdicchio are worth a taste.  From a red perspective, I suggest both Chianti and Valpolicella.  There is a good selection of both available in a moderate price range.  However, if you are willing to spend a little more, Barbaresco and Barolo are well worth the investment.

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