Of all life's decisions, few are less important but more complicated than ordering wine with dinner, especially in Europe.
From long restaurant lists we make semi-educated guesses as to which bottles will go with the dishes we will eat—and fit our pocketbooks. We must weigh such variables as grape variety, vineyard, region, country, and year of vintage. If it is our job to order for the table, we must also take into account the tastes and preferences of our companions. Some may want red wine, others white (a circumstance that leaves almost no room for compromise). But even if there is general agreement on the color of the wine, there may not be on such matters as how dry, how sweet, how light, how heavy, how tannic, or how acidic it should be.
When it comes to a complex wine list with bottles from several countries and dozens of regions, few are sufficiently knowledgeable to make a truly informed decision on the entire list. (Don't fret if you're not one of those few; 'wine authority' often equates to 'wine bore'). For instance, a Bordeaux savant may not know a Trockenbeerenauslese from Blue Nun, and vice versa.
Too often, in an attempt to appear knowledgeable, we apply our limited wine wisdom and assume - probably correctly - that the more we spend the better the wine will taste. That's not a wholly reliable process. And in Europe, wine lists are often even more intimidating than in the U.S.
Still, the non-connoisseur who wants decent wine at a decent price gets a couple of breaks in Europe. First, everyday European wines are better than their U.S. counterparts. Most small and medium American vintners are only interested in making great wine (though far too many make 'good' and price it like 'great') and the giant wineries like Gallo appear to be only interested in making money. Here there seems to be no middle ground.
Another advantage in Europe is the availability in restaurants of good to excellent wines without the necessity of purchasing an entire bottle. Some local products are invariably sold as offen wein (open wine) by the deciliter (one-tenth of a liter) or 3.38 ounces. Order 5-DL and you get 16.9 ounces, about two-thirds of a bottle, a perfect alternative for two persons who don't want the expense or the quantity of a full bottle. For a lone traveler, a typical order is 2-DL, nearly 7 ounces of wine, just over a quarter bottle.
Here are a few wine ordering strategies that have worked for me over the years:
• Stay local. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland you'll find excellent low-priced locally produced wines almost everywhere and I've rarely been disappointed, even with the often-maligned German and Austrian reds. European winemakers came to terms long ago with the fact that they are limited by soil and climate and, no matter how hard they try, the best many of them can do is make pleasant, everyday wines that taste just fine but will never be auctioned decades from now for a king's ransom. Most Swiss wines, for example, are sold in screw-top bottles—not cork—and many are absolutely delicious.
• Ask for advice. If it's the less expensive, local, offen wine you want, simply ask your server which he recommends. He may inquire as to your preference—dry-sweet, light-hearty, etc.—and there may be levels of quality, so you'll need to indicate about how much you want to spend. The same goes when ordering a bottle. Give the server or wine waiter a price range and ask for a recommendation within it. On rare occasions you'll run into a restaurant that touts certain wines because of business affiliations, higher profit margins, kickbacks, family connections, or reasons other than quality and value. But making your wine choices with the help of the server or wine waiter is almost a guarantee of wine at a good price. Much of the wine drunk in Europe is made only a few miles from the places where it is consumed, and the people who serve it do so with pride.
• Drink beer. Wine is not always in order. If you're eating simple, hearty food, beer may be a better choice. And remember, many of Europe's very best wines are readily available in the U.S. but its quality beer vom fass is not.
• Know the territory. It's a good idea to know a bit about grape varieties and wine regions.
Though almost totally unknown in the U.S., the best German reds I've had are from the vineyards around Freiburg im Breisgau, the Baden region, especially the village of Müllheim. Local restaurateurs are quick to say that the quality of their wines has dramatically improved over the past 40 years. For example, Müllheimer Reggenhag (about $35), made from the Spätburgunder grape, is silky, delicious and great with roast lamb.
A tiny region that has recently won fame for its reds is the Ahr Valley. The Ahr flows into the Rhine from the east just below Remagen. Grape varieties are mainly Spätburgunder, Portugieser, and Dornfelder.
The Rieslings of the Mosel and Rhine are Germany's most famous but, with minor exceptions, they have an edge of sweetness many feel is best before or after meals. But don't pass up a chance to sample Egon Müller's Scharzhofberger (actually from the Saar) or J.J. Prüm's Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese from the Mosel. Wine titles here carry the name of the village (Wehlen) and the specific vineyard (Sonnenuhr).
Other areas where I especially look forward to the local product include Burgenland in Austria and the southern Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais.
Burgenland is in Austria's southeast corner where one can drink refreshing white wine made from the Grüner Veltliner and Traminer grapes at any of the numerous and delightfully rustic heurigen in towns like Rust and Mörbisch. In addition, the region has recently emerged as a producer of some of the world's finest dessert wines. Not long ago, we were served a heavenly after-dinner wine at Gasthof Rusterhof (tel. +43/02685/6416, fax 6416 11) in Rust for about $6 per glass. It was Kracher Trockenbeerenauslese, half bottles of which are recommended in this month's Wine Spectator at from $60 to $80. (Relax, most of Burgenland's wines are modestly priced.) The magazine says the region also produces the country's best red wines and lists several at $13 to $15 per bottle as well as a handful of white and dessert bottles at $9 to $15.
I particularly enjoy the light red wines of the Valais. Dole is the predominant grape and you'll see it on every menu in a range of prices. I also order Merlot in Ticino, Switzerland's Italian-speaking canton.
In rare places where wine grapes are not grown (northern Germany, southern Bavaria, central and western Austria), I look to Spain and Italy. We are talking here about second and third rank wines priced in restaurants from $20 to $50 per bottle. In my experience, such wines from these two countries are better value than their French counterparts. The best Italian wines are the robust, dry reds that come from the Piedmont region. They can be labeled either by the variety of grape such as Nebbiolo (called Spanna in some parts) or Dolcetto, or by the name of the wine village. In addition to grape variety I look for place-names like Barolo, Alba and Gattinara. Occasionally, both grape variety and village are used on the label as in Dolcetto d'Alba. And it's hard to go far wrong with any wine labeled 'Chianti Classico,' from Tuscany.
Spanish wine is even easier. Knowing nothing of the individual villages or vineyards, I simply look for the word 'Rioja' on the wine list. Bottles designated 'Reserva' and 'Gran Reserva,' aged both in oak and in the bottle for a minimum period of time, are usually from the most successful harvests and more expensive.
Bottom line: ask for recommendations in a specific price range. - RHB