In the restaurant: The wine tasting ritual — how to handle it like an expert
Whether it’s a party of friends, clients or even a date — the wine presentation ritual can be a nerve-wracking point in the meal. As the waiter approaches with your chosen bottle, the table chatter dies away and all wait in anticipation for your verdict. Learn how to handle it with the poise and assurance of an expert, with tips Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford, chief restaurant critic Fiona Beckett and wine writer and sommelier Emily O’Hare.
The wine presentation ritual
Once you’ve navigated the wine list and chosen the perfect bottle, one final challenge awaits — the wine presentation ritual. Why are you being shown the bottle label? Should you sniff the cork? And what are you looking for in that all-important first taste? See below for our step-by-step guide.
The bottle arrives…
It might sound obvious, but many people don’t look properly at the bottle’s label — even when the waiter puts it right under their noses. If you don’t check the producer, style and vintage you run the risk of forking out for a different, possibly inferior, wine.
‘When it is presented to you, check the wine is the correct wine. Different vintages may have different prices, and you could get quite a fright when the bill arrives after you’ve gotten through four bottles,’ advises Emily O’Hare, former head sommelier and wine buyer at London’s River Café.
‘The blame is on the restaurant for serving you the wrong wine, but on you too for confirming it to be the right wine.’
A word of warning…
‘If you chose a nice vintage,’ said Andrew Jefford, Decanter.com weekly columnist and DWWA Regional Chair for France, ‘but the restaurant finds they’ve run out, it can be common for them to try to fob you off with the following year without telling you.’
If served correctly, the waiter or sommelier should keep the bottle facing you throughout the presentation and opening of the wine, to give you plenty of chance to get a good look. They may offer you the cork for inspection, see if it appears too sodden, or equally too dry and crumbly. Sniffing the cork is an option, but it’s generally thought not much can be detected from doing so.
The first taste
If you are the host, the waiter will pour a little of the wine into your glass for you to taste. Look at the appearance of the wine against a white background, like the tablecloth. Inspect the colour of the wine, and check there is nothing suspect floating in it (sediment is to be expected in some styles).
Swirl the glass a few times to aerate the wine and release its aromas, this is most smoothly done by keeping the glass on the table. Then swiftly bring the glass to your nose, and concentrate on the wine’s fragrance — you may have to repeat this a few times as your perception of the different scents fatigues quickly. Then take a small sip and roll it around your mouth, focusing on anything that seems at all unexpected or unpleasant.
Remember: This is the point at which you should raise any concerns with the sommelier — not once your guests have wincingly drunk half a glass of faulty wine.
‘The wine is offered for tasting so you can check it’s not corked but some people’s sensitivity to cork taint is greater than others,’ said Decanter’s chief restaurant wine critic Fiona Beckett.
‘If you think it’s smelling musty, mouldy or simply unaccountably flat — ask for it to be replaced. Insist politely but firmly if the restaurant says “it’s supposed to be like that”.’
Final golden rule
The solemnity of this routine can be off-putting, but keep in mind that the wine is usually the most expensive part of the meal — so it’s important to give it ample time and attention, to make sure you’re drinking what you’re paying for.
Written by Laura Seal for Decanter.com