It’s easy to freeze when trying to order wine in a restaurant, especially if the term ‘tome’ would be a more appropriate description of the menu that has just landed on your table.
But there are ways to make the whole process smoother – even enjoyable.
If you have time, think about getting ahead with a some homework in advance.
‘Some restaurants publish their wine lists online – it can be worth having a quick look before you arrive if you’re unsure about particular vintages or producers,’ said Matt Walls, Decanter contributing editor and who recently authored Wines of the Rhône.
Price mark-ups on restaurant wine lists vary considerably, but recent research by economists at the London School of Economics and University of Sussex business school found no evidence to support a long-held ‘urban myth’ of the second cheapest wine being the most overpriced.
Sometimes you might just really want a Chablis, or another classic. Yet being adventurous can also pay off.
‘When looking for value on a wine list, it can be a good idea to look for unusual regions or grape varieties,’ said Walls. ‘These will often be chosen for their quality and value, rather than a sommelier needing to “tick a box”.’
When you arrive, why not order a drink first to take the pressure off? ‘Always order a glass of Champagne first,’ said Anne Krebiehl MW, wine judge, writer and regular Decanter contributor.
Apart being an enjoyable thing to do, ‘it shows them that you’re serious’, she said.
If you’re not sure about many of the names on the list, then don’t be afraid to speak to the sommelier or one of the team.
‘It’s always best to be upfront, to say “this is my budget” and to use the expertise of the people who are there,’ Krebiehl said.
Walls agreed that striking up a conversation is a good strategy. ‘By all means talk to the sommelier – tell him or her what you’re eating, the styles of wine you like and don’t like, and give them an idea of your budget, perhaps with a price band to work within,’ Walls said.
‘Ask them what they’re excited about on the list,’ said Fiona Beckett, restaurant critic and food and wine expert, in this article on how to speak to a sommelier from the Decanter.com archive, published in 2017.
Ronan Sayburn MS, of 67 Pall Mall private members’ club and a previous winner of the UK sommelier of the year competition, said good sommeliers will always show an interest in your tastes.
‘A good sommelier is someone who will talk to the customer about what they like, rather than what the sommelier likes,’ he told Decanter.
He agreed that being open about your budget can be helpful. ‘If you say, “I normally like Rioja but I want something different that tastes the same, and I’m looking to spend around £50”, they know what they’re working with.’
While it’s important to watch out for anyone trying to sell you a pricey wine that you don’t want, most sommeliers love to use their expertise and chat to customers about wine, he said.
How to order wine in a restaurant: Five golden rules
Below, Amanda Barnes offers five key tips on getting it right (originally published in 2018).
Do your research
If you really want to appear like a pro to the rest of the room, do your research beforehand. Most fine dining restaurants have a wine list and menu available online, so scope out potential wines for the meal and identify any dishes that present wine pairing triumphs or hazards ahead of time.
If there’s no wine list available online, begin by thinking about possible cuisine pairings. Is the restaurant known for its oysters and shellfish? Dry sparkling and white wines are a good place to start. Are you heading out for a curry night? Aromatic off-dry whites, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer, would offer an easy pairing; or for heavier meat curries perhaps a juicy Gamay or a spicy Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre blend. Plan ahead and you’ll save time hesitating at the dinner table.
Think about value and price
Restaurants mark their wines up anywhere between 50% and 400%, although this varies across the list and between venues.
A smart wine buyer will look at which wines offer greater value within their category. For example if you find a Muscadet Sur Lie for £35, you know you’re likely getting swindled; whereas if you find a Condrieu AOC for £35, chances are you’ve found an absolute steal.
Eye up the wine list, assess the price and think about how it compares to its retail value outside the restaurant doors. If this is a special occasion, paying that extra bit more will likely secure you much more quality in the glass.
Do consider what you are eating – and what everyone else is
A foodie would decide on their menu first and then pick the wine to match. A wine geek might do the opposite. Whether wine or food choice comes first, make sure the other one matches up. You can complement wine and food by flavour and texture, or through a balance of sweetness and/or acidity.
If you’re going for a light fish dish for a starter and then a heavy lamb shank for a main course, it will be hard to find a bottle of wine to suit both. This is when you could explore the by-the-glass options.
If you’re dining with a companion, or a few, let them pick their food choices, discuss their wine preferences and then order a couple of different suitable bottles. It may be that some of the party should start on a red wine (if they order steak tartare, for example) and then move onto a white for the main course (maybe with creamy cod). If you are a large table, order a few bottles so that each guest can pair with their course accordingly.
If you’re being asked for your wine order and haven’t even finished reading the first page of the 12-page wine list, don’t panic! Take your time, there’s no need to rush. If your dinner companion looks thirsty, how about ordering a glass of house Champagne to kick off the evening? Sipping on bubbles, you can now take your time to muse over that wine list and consider what bottle will work best with your meal.
Do learn how to talk to a sommelier
A sommelier is there to help. The more information you give, the easier it is for them to help you to make the right decision. It won’t make you look like an amateur seeking advice, in fact quite the opposite. Engage in a conversation about wine. The sommelier has chosen the wines on their list for a reason; let them tell you why and together you can make an informed choice, to suit your own tastes, budget and meal.
Tell the sommelier what you and your companions like and dislike; for example, do you prefer reds that are fruity and light, or full-bodied and spicy? Then discuss what might work best with your meal. If you have a limited budget, challenge them to find the most exciting wine for your money.
Original copy by Amanda Barnes in 2018. Edited by Decanter.com in May 2021.