Choosing wine in a restaurant can be a daunting task, so expert Amanda Barnes shares her five golden rules to help you think like a professional wine buyer.
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.
Don’t fall into the second-cheapest pitfall
It’s the worst cliche on the first date: picking the second cheapest bottle on the list. One of the oldest tricks in the book, this move won’t woo your dinner companion and the restaurateur has most likely already cottoned-on. Restaurants mark their wines up anywhere between 50% and 400% – and many charge a bigger margin on their cheapest, and certainly their second-cheapest wine. You can usually count on an inverse relationship between restaurant price and the margin: the more you pay, the smaller the mark-up ratio.
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.
Amanda Barnes is a writer travelling AroundTheWorldIn80Harvests.com