Choose the Best Wine on the Menu Every Time With These 9 Tips

Updated 03/27/17
Original Illustration and Graphic by Stephanie DeAngelis

The world of wine can be highly intimidating—especially when you're flipping through a sprawling 10-page menu full of words you don't know how to pronounce let alone translate. Raise your glass if you've ever pressure-ordered something out of budget or random simply because you weren't sure what anything on the menu was but didn't want to keep the whole table waiting. Cheers to that. To put an end to our whining once and for all, we reached out to a sommelier at a James Beard Award–winning restaurant to help us make the wine list a little more approachable.

Jason Alexander, head sommelier and managing partner at State Bird Provisions and The Progress, helped us create detailed profiles of the most common wines so you can better understand the flavors each variety is known for, which foods to pair with them, and the best bottle of each. To make things even more fun, we gave each grape a funny nickname to help you remember which is which next time you're navigating the wine list. Ready to be wined and dined? Let's begin our virtual tasting tour with the reds, and then transition into whites with a cyber school sip of rosé. The grapevine awaits!

Reds

Best Red Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: Alexander explains that "merlot is a classic chameleon grape, expressing varying character according to how it is vinified and where it is grown." That being said, there are a few things to look out for to help you distinguish it from other reds. "In general, it is a medium-bodied grape with aromas of black cherry, plum, and cola. You also often find cedar, tobacco, vanilla, and mocha," Alexander says. He also notes that "the grape has soft, plush tannins and moderate acidity." Tannins are the textural element of wine that come from compounds in the grape seeds and skin. Plush tannins, like the ones in merlot, mean that it'll feel softer. In other words, it's smooth and easy to drink. 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: "I like merlot with simply prepared, lean red meat dishes. Then again, if someone is opening a bottle of Petrus, you can opt for something a little more special!"

Best Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: "In its homeland in the south of France, Malbec is a rustic, structured, medium-to-full-bodied grape with aromas of black fruit, camphor, scrub brush, and scorched earth," Alexander says. However, "the opposite is true of its arguably more famous growing region in Argentina where the wines are full-bodied and lush, with bold fruit, supple tannins, and long fruit-driven finishes." In general, it's very tangy, fruity, and sharp, so the consistency is quite soft and easy to sip on.

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: "Red meat dishes," he says. Try "more rustic and herb-driven preparations when ordering Cahors (French Malbec)," and then go for sweeter "sauces when ordering Argentinian. Think American BBQ!"

Best Red Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: According to Alexander, "Zinfandel is making a comeback." This grape's "ancestral home has been tied to Croatia, but it is most famously grown in California." Growing new grapes from other regions can create some really interesting hybrid wines. This is because as many regions pursue the newest and hottest grapes, the old vine material planted throughout time remains. Alexander explains that "in the right hands, these wines can create wines of great intrigue." And Zinfandel in particular "produces medium-to-full-bodied wines with a mélange of black and cherry fruit, jam, and smoke." 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: Open a bottle of zin while you grill burgers and hot dogs or when you have a côte de boeuf roasting in the oven.

Best Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: We love that Alexnder calls Pinot Noir "the heartbreak grape." He explains that it's "notoriously fickle, difficult to grow, and strongly influenced by growing conditions. In Burgundy, its traditional home, the variations or style are seemingly endless, with nuances notable in neighboring rows of vines!" Talk about indecisive. He does give us some commonalities, though, explaining that the "the core attributes are medium-bodied wines with fruit ranging from red to black cherry, earl gray tea, truffle, and rose petal." Unsurprisingly, the tannins vary a lot too. They range from supple to firm, depending on the soil it's grown in. 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: Alexander suggests ordering a glass of pinot noir with "pheasant, quail, duck, capon, and anytime you're not sure what to order!" 

The Pink

Best Rosé
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: Here comes another delicious, popular, and easy-to-drink but extremely diverse wine. "The diversity of rosé is nearly endless," Alexander confirms. "Essentially, rosé can be produced from any red-skinned grape: pinot noir, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault." In the right hands, any of the above red grapes can create a wine of perfect balance. In Alexander's opinion, "the very best are crafted with a delicate hand—light maceration leading to delicate salmon hues, with an emphasis on red fruit (especially tar-red fruit), floral tones, and racy acidity." When in doubt, ask for the salmon-colored rosé. 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: You know the drill: Rosé is best on a warm summer afternoon, though you can enjoy it year-round. 

Whites

Best White Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: "Pinot grigio has become a catch phrase for 'clean, simple white wine,' which oversimplifies the grape and the myriad of styles it can be produced in," Alexander clarifies. But its status as a popular wine is still well-earned. "The grape itself is thick-skinned and carries a lot of color," producing wines that are both light-bodied and reminiscent of green apple and Asian pear with floral tones, and "full-bodied wines of great density, viscosity, and structure that are characterized by apricot." It's interesting to note that pinot grigio is the same thing as pinot gris, but the latter is the French while the former is Italian.

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: Order it to balance out a buttery, garlic-y dish, like spaghetti or halibut. 

Best Wines
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Grape: Popular, smooth, and refined, sauvignon blanc is one suave choice. Its primary characteristics are the grassy flavor, vibrant acidity, and citrusy notes. Alexander says the crisp texture and taste make it an easy favorite. "When I think about classic regions that grow sauvignon blanc, I immediately think of the Loire Valley (citrus, mineral-driven), Bordeaux (citrus, lanolin, more textured, and often blended with sémillon), and New Zealand (bears lime, jalapeño, grapefruit)," he says. 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: Sauvignon blanc is most enjoyed with clean, simple dishes. 

Best White Wine
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The Basics: "From the flinty, mineral-driven wines of Chablis to the full-bodied, wood-barrel-fermented wines crafted in many regions of the world, chardonnay is the world's most beloved wine for its diversity of expression," swoons Alexander. He makes his case for chardonnay explaining that "at its most pure, [it's] is driven by characteristics of lemon, apple, pear, orange blossom, vanilla bean, and baking spice." It can also be richer than other white wines, which is usually because of the texture and consistency. Some have described it as buttery. Alexander explains that this is because "the more wood you add, the more weight and tropical fruit notes." 

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: It's a great wine for cocktail parties since it goes really well with appetizers and cheese platters. It also pairs wonderfully with pork and seafood. 

Hero Bottle: Domaine Christophe, Chablis, 1er Cru, Montee de Tonnerre, Burgundy, France

Best Wines
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Riesling: Let's end this wine class with a history lesson. Alexander informs us that "at the turn of the 19th century, the great rieslings of Germany were the most expensive wines in the world, far more expensive than the first growths of Bordeaux!" That's why it's so often associated with Germany. Like the rest, it's pretty diverse. "From sparkling wine to unctuously sweet Trockenbeerenauslese, the grape produces wines of singularity, intrigue, and endless variations of style." However, the "general trend is towards dry wines, emphasizing lime and candied citrus, green apple, and minerals," which is where it gets that sweetness from.

Wine and Dine à la Alexander: While there are many ways to drink it, "riesling is a natural fit with foods with a lot of spice and heat."

Now that you have a better handle on vino, let us know which is your favorite in the comments, and then pass it along to your friends for better Wine Wednesday's worldwide. 

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