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In the restaurant: How to order wine for the table — people pleasing and pairings

Ordering the wine for a table of friends, family or business associates can feel like a crushing responsibility. How do you keep your cool while second-guessing or placating the demands of those around you? If only you could remember what that article you read said about matching wine and seafood. Here's some advice from Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford, chief restaurant critic Fiona Beckett and wine writer and sommelier Emily O'Hare.

How to order wine for the table

‘People are unaccountably nervous about ordering wine —  in a way they never are about ordering food.’

  • Do the maths: One bottle of wine is 5 or 6 glasses

  • Let the sommelier take the strain

  • Stick to easy-drinking styles in a larger group

  • Don’t obsess over specific food pairings

People pleasing

Restaurant tables are often a meeting of different preferences, palates and moods — so how can you keep everybody happy when ordering the wine?

Decanter’s chief restaurant wine critic Fiona Beckett has a simple formula:

‘I think the answer is not to stress too much about it. If there’s two of you, you can obviously order by the glass. If there’s four, I’d generally order a white and a lightish red.’

‘Light and mid-weight reds tend to work best for this scenario,’ said Andrew JeffordDecanter.com weekly columnist and DWWA Regional Chair for France. ‘It’s one of the reasons why Burgundy tends to feature so prominently on many wine lists. Beaujolais can be very good, too.’

Lighter styles, or mid-weight if the dish is has more richness, can be a good crowd-pleaser by making the wine part of the occasion but not the focal point. Obviously, if you and your date, or friends, are wine aficionados then the rules are different.

Equally, don’t expect to change the world. If the evangelist in you decides to order a special bottle to ‘educate’ others, then do so in the knowledge that you may be underwhelmed by the group’s reaction.

How to order wine for the table

Take the pressure off ordering wine for a group…Getty Images / PeopleImages.

And for larger parties? Emily O’Hare, former head sommelier and wine buyer at London’s River Café shares her don’ts:

  • Don’t ask what preferences the table has, well maybe a show of hands for white or red, so you know how many bottles of each to order. Otherwise you may have to deal with fielding loud call ‘s for full-bodied wines, versus muffled squeaks for lighter styles.
  • Don’t choose wines that interfere or distract too much from the meal, such as those with very distinctive styles that may be too oaky or heavy.
  • Don’t try to assimilate everyone’s tastes yourself. Hand that burden straight over to the sommelier and they’ll shoulder it for you — they know exactly which wines work for big groups. And if not all the party is pleased at least they saw you getting a recommendation…

Remember: One 75cl bottle of wine should yield 5-6 adequate glasses of wine, on average allow for 3 glasses of wine per person over the course of the meal. But be generous; there are few things worse than running dry – or worrying about it.

Restaurant food and wine pairing

‘If the sommelier tries to talk you out of it, they are demonstrating their unsuitability for the job’

What if one guest orders the beef bourguignon and the other is set on the sea bream? Here’s Andrew Jefford’s refreshing take on restaurant pairing:

‘Don’t agonise over food-wine combinations; if you fancy a bottle of Bordeaux, even though you and your guest are having fish as a main course, or a bottle of Chablis with a steak — go for it.

‘I simply order what I most fancy eating and what I’d most like to drink, that’s what gives me most pleasure — even if the combination may seem bizarre to the sommelier. If the sommelier disapproves or tries to talk you out of it, they are demonstrating their unsuitability for the job.’

Final golden rule

‘People are unaccountably nervous about ordering wine — in a way they never are about ordering food,’ said Beckett.

‘Do you worry about which cheeses to pick off a cheeseboard? I’m sure you don’t, so don’t worry about the wine. Just find the styles of wine you like and ask for plenty of advice.’

Written by Laura Seal for Decanter.com

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