If you’ve ever been intimidated by the prospect of ordering wine in a restaurant or wine bar or requesting a recommendation in a bottle shop, know that you’re in good company. Anyone who has ever worked in those settings will tell you that the majority of their customers are unable or afraid to describe the type of wine they desire and often make an embarrassed claim of not knowing how to talk about wine, sometimes even apologizing for it. Although very few of us would ever apologize to our doctor for not having been trained in medicine, many people who have had no wine education somehow feel their lack of knowledge is something to be ashamed of.
There is truly no reason to worry about this. Any wine professional should know how to ask the right questions to arrive at the perfect recommendation and certainly should never say anything to make you feel bad about your level of expertise or lack thereof. But to increase the likelihood of satisfaction, you might find it helpful to learn some basic terms for communicating your preferences.
We suggest starting small by identifying a handful of words that describe the wines you’ve enjoyed in the past. These are some of the most important words to use when ordering wine. Armed with these, you can effortlessly request a “full-bodied, earthy and tannic red,” an “off-dry aromatic white with high acidity,” or whatever else you may desire.
Dry, Off-Dry or Sweet
This is an important place to start, because many people have heard the term “dry” and think they’re “supposed” to use it to describe a good wine, but most are unfamiliar with what the word actually means in a wine context. Simply put, a dry wine is a wine that is not sweet and should not be confused with a tannic wine, which can make your mouth feel dry (see below). On almost any given wine list, at least 90% of the (nondessert) wines are dry, so this word actually communicates very little about what you like. It’s much more useful to share a preference for wines that are not dry, if you have one: either off-dry wines that are just lightly sweet or fully sweet wines.
Tannic or Smooth
As mentioned above, many people use the word “dry” when they actually mean “tannic.” That’s because tannin, the astringent compound found in red wine, can actually make your mouth feel quite dry. If you’ve ever over-steeped a pot of black tea (which also contains tannin), you’ll recognize that sensation easily. Tannins give red wine body and structure and tend to be more aggressive in young wines; they mellow out with age. Some grape varieties are naturally predisposed to high tannin levels. If that’s your thing, be sure to mention it. If you prefer to avoid tannic wines, the word you’ll want to use is “smooth.”
Do you like wines that make your mouth water and pucker? If so, ask for a high-acidity wine. If, on the other hand, you find that sensation unpleasant, low acidity is the way to go. Acidity works on a spectrum, of course, and you may find yourself somewhere in between. Note that if a wine has too little acidity, it might taste flat, flabby or overly alcoholic. If it has too much, it can be overwhelmingly tart.
Some people prefer their wines to be light, lively and airy, while others want to drink something quite a bit more substantial; many people find their sweet spot lies between the two. Think of light-bodied wines like water, medium-bodied wines like skim milk, and full-bodied wines like whole milk or cream. Alcohol goes hand-in-hand with body, so if you seek lower-alcohol wines, light-bodied selections are the way to go.
Fermenting or aging wines in new oak (barrels that have not been previously used) will give them a woody profile accompanied by a range of characteristics from coconut to vanilla to Christmas spice. If you like those flavors, you’ll want to mention that you prefer an oaky wine; if you prefer to taste the purity of the fruit, you might ask to avoid wines aged in new oak. Once a barrel has been used two or three times, it’s considered to be neutral and will no longer impart aromas or flavors to the wine, but it will contribute a pleasing texture and help to soften the tannins in red wines.
Buttery flavors in wine (most notably, some domestic chardonnays) come from a process called malolactic fermentation, in which the tangy malic acid in the wine (think green apples) is converted to softer, gentler lactic acid (think yogurt, cheese or, well, butter). No need to get all scientific on this one; the word “buttery” works just fine. Wherever you land on the butter preference spectrum, this is an especially important term when you’re ordering chardonnay—there’s no shortage of great options either way.
Fruit-Forward, Earthy, Funky or Floral
If you enjoy wines that primarily display flavors of fruit, you’ll want to request a wine that’s fruit-forward. These tend to be bright, approachable and easy to drink. The fruit flavors themselves vary with each grape variety—white wines can be redolent of tropical fruits, citrus or stone fruit, while reds might have characteristics like cherries, berries or plums. Earthy wines, on the other hand, show more savory qualities, like dried herbs, leather, tobacco or tar, or even dirt or barnyard. If you’re not afraid to get really earthy, you might request a wine that is “funky” —a descriptor often applied to natural wines. If you prefer to keep things delicate and pretty, wines with floral aromatics like rose, violet or orange blossom can be remarkably appealing.
This is where ordering wine can sometimes get awkward, especially if you’re dining with someone you don’t know well. If you don’t want to indicate it out loud, once you’ve determined the price you’re comfortable paying, simply point to the price of a wine on the list and casually mention to your server that you’d like something along those lines. They’ll get the hint.
Specific Grape Varieties or Regions
If there’s a region or grape variety that you know you love, sharing this with your sommelier can be one of the best ways to get a great selection. A simple statement like “I love malbec from Argentina” or “sauvignon blanc is my favorite grape” communicates an enormous amount of information about your preferences, especially if you’re not yet ready to articulate the specific qualities of the wines you enjoy. Knowing that you like sauvignon blanc lets your server infer that you prefer light-bodied, high-acidity white wines with bright citrus and herbal flavors, so they can guide you toward something new and interesting to try—for instance, an Austrian grüner veltliner.