Wine Under $20

Seeking the best value for the buck.

Wine List Tips: The Best Wine at The Olive Garden

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[Photograph: sjsharktank on Flickr]

Wine has become a really big part of my life. When I'm not writing about it or talking about it, I'm usually thinking about it or drinking about it. But it can be a blessing and a curse as friends, coworkers, and family members alike tend to play the game "just pass the wine list to Seema" whenever we're at a restaurant. Now don't get me wrong, I love perusing wine lists and contemplating the potential goodies that will unfold, but there are many a meal where I have to concede to my fellow diners that I just don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of every wine bottle in existence.

If I'm lucky (which usually means I'm eating at an expensive restaurant), there's a sommelier or knowledgeable waiter who can confirm that I'm going in the right direction. But I don't usually eat at fancy pants restaurants, so more often than not, I'm left to my own devices. I try to think about the food I'm ordering and which styles of wine (and which grape varieties) might taste best with it, but in a sea of options, I tend to look for a recognizable bottle, something I've tried at home or at other restaurants.

Today we begin our foray into exploring the wine lists at popular chain restaurants. If you find yourself at The Olive Garden, there's no sommelier, and no cutesy descriptions, but you will see many of the same wines at every branch (though there may be a little variation from location to location). We tasted our way through 23 wines that you'll find at The Olive Garden in order to point you toward the best deals. (Yes, we tried them alongside the classic garlicky breadsticks and salty "Tour of Italy" (a combo of lasagna, chicken parmesan, and Fettuccine Alfredo). Here are the tastiest options from among the 9 whites, 13 reds, and 1 rosé that we tried.

Best Red: Rocca delle Macie SaSyr Sangiovese and Syrah

With an enticing scent of dried cherries and a little caramel, the Rocca delle Macie SaSyr Sangiovese and Syrah (around $9.65/glass; $38/bottle at Olive Garden) was quite tasty. Velvety smooth tannins and the bright acidity typical of Sangiovese worked to uplift the spiciness and dark chocolate flavors of the Syrah. Pretty much anything smothered with meat sauce would be a delicious match for this.

The Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was another we'd recommend ordering if you're at the Olive Garden. This wine has a meaty scent and substantial tannins that work to support a sweetness that reminded us of ripe Bing cherries. If you're ordering steak or the Olive Garden's Chianti-braised short ribs, this wine will work well.

Best Value: Straccali Chianti

One of the great things of not telling people prices at a wine tasting is discovering when a winner is...well...cheap. At $6.75 a glass (or $26 a bottle) at Olive Garden, Stracalli Chianti is a wine we'd consider buying even outside of the Olive Garden, especially when stocking up for a party. Though it had a bit of a strange scent, its deep cherry flavors and mild black pepper spice were lifted by lively acidity that would pair nicely with the tomato sauces so commonly found in an Olive Garden dinner.

Another good value option in lighter-bodied reds is Feudo Arancio Stemmari Nero D'Avola, which is slightly spicy and well structured, with the prominent acidity that will help it go well with lasagna or other saucy dishes.

Best White: Kris Pinot Grigio

We'll be honest: none of the 9 white wines from the Olive Garden menu that we tried were mind-blowing by any means. But there were a couple of safe bets. We'd recommend going for the slightly melon-scented Kris Pinot Grigio (around $8.35/glass; $34/bottle at Olive Garden) which offered up bright green apple and tart lemon flavors with each sip. There's a tinge of savory, almost green olive bitterness on the finish. It's a decent option if you're kicking off the meal with artichoke-spinach dip or stuffed mushrooms.

At around $7.75 a glass (or $30 a bottle), Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc is another light and crisp option. While it smells sweet, like gummy peach rings, the wine itself is much drier than you'd expect, with a pleasant minerality. It's just the thing to cut through the creaminess of Fettuccine Alfredo.

Though it's off-dry (read: slightly sweet) the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling on the Olive Garden menu ($7.50/glass; $29/bottle) is a well-balanced option, and the touch of sweetness can work really well with fried dishes like the fried shrimp scampi and calamari. It has a nice lemony tartness that reminded a few of us of SweeTarts candy—in a good way.

There were a few Chardonnays that were okay, but were definitely on the the buttery, creamy side—if you're sensitive to oak and vanilla flavor dominating a glass of white wine, stay away from these. Looking to stay within budget and just want a light and fresh glass of white wine? Most of our agreed that the Olive Garden house white, the Principato Bianco was a perfectly fine option at $6.35 a glass.

What Are Your Wine List Tips?

If you eat at the Olive Garden, which wines do you order? What is your method for choosing wine if you're not familiar with the bottles? Do you whip out your phone and Google the wines? Or close your eyes and plant a finger somewhere on the menu?

You'll likely see quite a few of these wines on the lists at other major national chains—especially those serving Italian food. If you're eating at The Macaroni Grill, chances are you can order a few of these bottles, too. But we'll also be checking out the wine lists at other chain restaurants in the months to come: which chains do you eat at? Do you order wine there?

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

All wines were provided as samples for review, only top-scoring wines included here.

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