Drinks expert Victoria shares her top tips for selecting wine at a restaurant – without being ripped off.
When it comes to choosing wines from a restaurant list, are you a confident adventurer, a panicker or a creature of habit?
Confident adventurers don’t need my help – they’re off roaming the wine list in search of a producer they’ve heard is good or a grape they’ve never tried before. Panickers dither and struggle and then find it hard to believe they’ve picked a good wine, even when they have. I know a lot of creatures of habit (CoHs). Some of them don’t even read the names of the wines; they pick purely based on position. Imagine choosing your food like that. But that’s what they do. ‘Second down? I’ll have that. No, make it third down – the second wine on the list is always the worst value for money, right?’ That was once true, precisely because so many people picked wine by upgrading one notch from the house white or red, but the rule of thumb no longer holds true.
Other CoHs look for a famous name, such as sancerre, or a safe grape, such as pinot grigio. This is a bad move. Sancerre sells so well on restaurant wine lists that it’s often disproportionately marked up. If you like sancerre, it’s better to look for another sauvignon blanc from the Loire, such as sauvignon de Touraine, which will have a similarly grassy taste, or a sauvignon blanc from, say Leyda in Chile or Australia’s Adelaide Hills. As for pinot grigio, this is seen as the ‘chicken’ option of the wine list. Unless the pinot grigio in question is an esoteric choice from Alsace or a bronzey rosé pinot grigio from an artisan producer, wine people can get quite snooty; they love to penalise anyone boring enough to order it by forcing them to upgrade to a more expensive bottle.
So those are the wines to be wary of. I wish I could tell you there was a foolproof way to make your choice, but there isn’t.
In general, though, wines from less well-known regions are usually better value. My golden rule is that most people enjoy average wine in a style they like far more than they enjoy fairly good wine in a style that isn’t to their taste. That may sound obvious but it’s often forgotten. If crisp whites are your thing, look for one. If the wine equivalent of strong builder’s tea – a full-bodied red with plenty of fruit and tannin – is what you fancy, find one.
One last thing: get help. Sommeliers love wine. They’ve spent years swotting up and they go to work every day desperate to be able to share some of that hard-won information. It’s often suggested that it’s dangerous to put your wine choice in the hands of a sommelier in case he or she picks a bottle out of your budget. This concern is easily resolved by telling the sommelier your budget. In the manner of a French-language-learning role play conversation, I will give you the key phrase to parrot: ‘Could you help us choose a wine? We don’t want to spend more than £X.’ See? It’s not that hard really.
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Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her most recent book is The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta).