The ritual of selecting a wine from the wine list has many diners a little nervous, if not outright uncomfortable. If you’ve ever had a bad experience – an awkward first date, an embarrassing business dinner or otherwise – then this article is for you. The good news is that the wine list is a relatively simple proposition. Armed with some basic idea of what to look for, you’ll soon be reaching for that wine list with confidence!
Understanding the wine list
Your list will probably first be split into sections covering red, white and sparkling wines, among others. Each entry will offer a few basic details, and probably not much else. We’ve compiled the major details to look for below, which should get you by. You also you have a secret weapon here, too: The sommelier.
The sommelier, or wine waiter, is there to talk about wine and help you pick the best wine you can. Nobody knows a restaurant’s wine list better than the sommelier that designed it and serves the wines from it day in and day out. The tips that we will share below will help you in a general sense, but remember that the sommelier is your best friend and don’t be afraid to ask him or her to help you out!
The more you know about individual regions, the more you can make an educated guess about the wines in front of you. Many regions have broad styles that are distinctive, such as Burgundy in France. Generally speaking, you’ll be able to surmise that a red Burgundy wine will be light in body with high acidity, and have red fruit flavours.
If you want to get more specific, call on the somm: He’ll tell you the difference between his Pommard and his Mercurey, or between those two identical-looking Volnay Premier Cru wines.
One pro tip is to seek out the more obscure regions. Yes, there’s wine from India, and if it’s on the wine list you can be sure that it has earned its place amongst the more marketable and recognisable names. Ask the somm to recommend one of these wines and you may just be in for a very pleasant surprise.
Knowing the grape can tell you a lot about the wine. If you see a “Syrah” on the menu, you can expect a full-bodied red with beautiful black fruit and spice flavours. Read about or taste some of the major wine grape varieties and you’ll thank yourself later.
If a list doesn’t specify the grapes, for example in a Bordeaux blend, worry not: The somm can fill in any of the gaps that you may have, or indeed to explain any of the more obscure varieties on the list.
It’s good to know who makes the wine. Some producers make better wine than others. Good regions can have bad producers, and vice versa. Some producers make wine that is totally unique or atypical in style for that region or grape variety. Some specialise in organic, biodynamic or natural wines. Some producers have charming stories and family history behind them, others are owned by multinational corporations. The sommelier will be delighted to tell you all about it.
Vintage is hugely important in fine wine. Each vintage in each region is unique, and the conditions of any given year will impact what the wine ultimately tastes like. Consult a good wine vintage guide to learn more. On the other hand, most good producers still make very good wines in lesser vintages, and many sommeliers pride themselves on sourcing these wines as they often cost a little less.
Prices can vary widely, even between different vintages of the same wine. Make sure to check the price before you order – indeed the sommelier should call the wine back to you in order to be certain. In addition, don’t be afraid to indicate your preferred price range to the sommelier, who can discreetly make recommendations within it.
Do you have any tips of your own to read a wine list like a pro?