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Wine List Tips: The Best Wine at Red Lobster

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[Photographs: Chelsea Oakes on Flickr]

I have been hearing a lot about the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster. Even a friend who's effectively sworn off seafood for life said she goes there on occasion just to partake in the dance of the Cheddar Bay biscuits.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Red Lobster might have been a frequent stop had it not been for my mom's vegetarianism and my own extreme aversion to shrimp. So I never tried these biscuits...until now. Laced with plenty of butter, cheddar cheese, and barely noticeable garlic flavor, they're pretty freakin' tasty. The rest of the food? Well, you can probably do better, depending where you are, but sometimes, you find yourself at a Red Lobster, and you're thirsty. We're here to help. On a recent mission to figure out which is the best wine to order at Red Lobster, we nibbled on some Lobster-Artichoke-and-Seafood Dip and Lobster Pizza as accompaniments to our vino.

The wine list at the branch we visited was fairly simple: about 15 bottles spread across white, red, rose, and bubbles. The vast majority of bottles are domestic, from California in particular. (There's a fair bit (4 bottles) of Sutter Home available.)

Thinking back to our trek through the Olive Garden wine list, there were a few bottles of overlap with the white and "blush" (i.e., White Zinfandel) wines. The red wine offerings were quite different, which isn't that surprising since Olive Garden focuses on Italian wines. But Red Lobster's wine list is pretty similar to quite a few classic American chains; Red Lobster, TGI Friday's, and Applebee's share nearly half of the bottles on their wine lists. High volume domestic wine is the game (with the exception of an Italian Pinot Grigio shared by all three lists), and they seem to be playing it the same.

So keep this list handy if you find yourself at Red Lobster (or other similar chains) and want to pick out a wine you won't regret. Prices may vary depending on where you're located.

Favorite Red: Blackstone Merlot

In general, the red wines we tried on the Red Lobster list were all pretty inoffensive and fruity...totally drinkable, though maybe not perfectly matched to the food on the menu. The Blackstone Winemaker's Select Merlot was a favorite, with the fruitiness of cherry and blackberry balanced by a little black pepper. The oaky caramel aroma evolved into vanilla or even cinnamon flavors toward the end, but were not overwhelming. Grilled chicken or meat would probably be better here than seafood, but even having some extra cheddar biscuits handy to soak this up would be a fair alternative. One downside: value. At our local Red Lobster, this stuff is $37 a bottle and $9.50 a glass...that's a pretty serious markup on a bottle you can buy for 6 or 7 bucks at a wine store.

A few other options: J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.95/glass; $35/bottle) had an interesting smoky scent mixed with a faint smell of Red Vine candy. The wine itself was slightly on the sweeter side with ripe cherry flavors and a little menthol to balance. With smooth, mild tannins, this wine would be a decent choice for some Red Lobster surf and turf (NY Strip and Rock Lobster Tail).

You could tell Mirassou Pinot Noir ($8.50/glass; $33/bottle) was going to be on the sweeter side from the smell of cherry and toffee that rose out of the glass. The sweet fruit flavors of raspberry jam, dried cherry and plum were enhanced by a hint of coffee. But this lighter-bodied wine would be pretty nice with salmon dishes.

Favorite White: BV Sauvignon Blanc

Our three favorite whites were actually all at the same price point ($8.50/glass; $33/bottle). So our recommendation depends on what you're in the mood for.

The BV (Beaulieu Vineyard) Coastal Estates Sauvignon Blanc was a pretty agreeable wine, with a peachy scent and a lemony flavor in the glass, with a little pith that lingered at the end of the sip. This light, clean wine had a good amount of acidity to cut through the richness of lobster, buttery cheddar biscuits, or anything rich. (And plenty of the food on the menu at Red Lobster is rich.) With simple flavors and just a tinge of effervescence, this bottle seemed like a safe bet that could probably pair well with most of the menu.

If the BV Sauv Blanc is all about lemon, the Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio IgT is all about lime. With acidity of citrusy lime and green apple, this wine was light enough that it wouldn't overwhelm most seafood, but if you opt for a dish that's heavy on flavor (e.g., the Lobster-Artichoke-and-Seafood Dip), don't be surprised if the balance of the wine is effectively washed out.

Another standby, which we also saw on the Olive Garden list, is Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. Our opinion of it was pretty much the same as before—it's on the sweet side, but balanced enough to be quite enjoyable, with a honey-like scent and flavors of lemon and tropical fruit.

Do you drink wine at chains like Red Lobster? Are there any other chains where you'd like to have a wine list tip or two? Let us know in the comments below.

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 except the BV Sauvignon Blanc were provided by the importers/wineries as press samples for review.

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