How to choose wine in a restaurant
No need to dread the wine list, our wine editor Victoria Moore has all the expert tips you need to pair the perfect bottle with your meal
How to pick the perfect bottle...
Even I still sometimes feel a frisson of nervousness when a friend passes me the wine list with the words 'You choose'. The expectation! How to live up to it? In my experience there are three sorts of wine lists: good wine lists, on which every bottle is a brilliant and clever find; bad wine lists, on which every bottle is a disappointment; and patchy wine lists, which is where expertise comes into play - this is where someone who really knows what they are doing can shine.
The Golden Rule
But before anyone worries that this sounds too much like hard work, please remember that when it comes to wine in restaurants, nothing is more important than my Golden Rule. I once nearly lost a boyfriend while caught in a feverish haze with a list the size of the King James Bible. We were having a romantic dinner in the south of France. At least, we were supposed to be. He wanted a glass of Champagne. I wanted silence for 20 minutes while I conducted an exhaustive survey of the wine list to make sure there was nothing better. Big mistake. He just wanted Champagne. Which brings me to the Golden Rule: always pick a style of wine that you and your friends love drinking - and pick it quickly.
Unless the wine is exceptionally bad, my Picpoul-loving friends are always happier with a mediocre glass of Picpoul (or another crisp, cold white, such as Gavi, Verdicchio or Vermentino) than with any bargain of a white Burgundy I might lovingly alight on. Plus, they'll very likely all be ordering differently so there's no point looking for a wine that goes with the food.
Four steps to success
1. Look out for new comers
A Syrah from the Collines Rhodaniennes (which most people haven't heard of) will often be much better value than a Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage (which many people will know about). Also, it's likely to be there because someone has fallen in love with it, not because they're ticking a wine list checkbox.
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2. Start with the New World
With a long wine list, start browsing at the New World end. It's often shorter and easier to get a handle on. Pick your back-up wine from here and determine that it's what you'll drink unless you find anything that beats it.
3. Ask for help
Sommeliers love this and they are on your side. Just be as clear as possible about the brief. Say how much you want to spend - no one minds if it's not much, although obviously there's no point asking for advice if there's only one on the menu that's in-budget.
If you find it hard to describe what you like, then say what you don't like. It might feel negative but a line as simple as 'No thin reds, and no whites that are yellow-coloured' offers very helpful flags to someone trying to read your vinous taste.
4. Work with what you've got
Remember that your choice can only be as good as the wine list. If the wine's no good, that's not your fault!
If you'd like to get the low-down on white wines and what to pair them with, check out our matching guide here.
What are your steps to pairing success? Let us know in the comments below...
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