Many people are understandably intimidated when faced with a restaurant wine list. Confronted with a host of unfamiliar and often unpronounceable choices, it's tempting to simply select the tried-and-true Merlot. Christian Hammer, wine captain at Balthazar, offers some advice on ordering wine in a restaurant.

A restaurant's sommelier, or wine steward, Christian explains, is a valuable resource. Don't hesitate to ask his or her advice, even if you're not planning on spending a great deal of money. Indicate your desired price range and the type of wine you're seeking. If the wine list contains mostly French or other European wines, it will probably be organized by region (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti). Other lists are organized by grape (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). The sommelier can explain the subtleties of Pinot Gris versus Pinot Blanc and recommend wines that will suit with the dish you plan to order.

Just remember, the "white wine with fish and poultry, red wine with meat" rule often holds true, but not always. For a salmon served in a hearty bordelaise, or red-wine sauce, Christian recommends a medium-bodied burgundy. For a roast chicken on polenta dish, or steak frites, he suggests a rich, spicy Rhone Valley red as an accompaniment. Yet the delicate flavor of oysters on the half-shell always holds up best with a crisp white wine or champagne.

When your wine arrives, swirl it in your glass before you drink it; this exposes the wine to air and releases the full bouquet. Take a sip, then move the wine around in your mouth before swallowing, so you register its full impact on your palate. Relax, and enjoy the experience. If you particularly like the wine, by all means write down the name and vintage; some people keep a wine diary so they can record the wines they enjoy, both to preserve fond memories and for future reference.


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