How to Order Wine At A Restaurant
Wine is a damn delicious beverage but I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t half confusing. From science-y sounding terms like brettanomyces which give me flashbacks of GCSE Biology to intricate winemaking techniques like carbonic maceration, there’s heaps of wine jargon and terminology that can take weeks of research to properly get your head round. Not everyone, of course, has time for that and not everyone wants to dive that deep into things. One thing, though, that I’m sure everyone who drinks alcohol wants to be able to do is order wine at a restaurant without looking like a complete doughnut.
Not knowing your Burgundy from your Barolo becomes especially stressful when it comes to ordering a bottle when you’re at a restaurant and you’re unsure what the best move for you (and your wallet) is going to be. There’s never any shame in going for the house wine or the cheapest bottle available. There’s also no shame in doing that classic date night move of ordering the second cheapest bottle because you don’t want to make it seem like you’re a cheapskate but you’re also heavily into your overdraft.
Wine lists can be as thick as the Order of the Phoenix and twice as difficult to decipher. That being said, some wine lists will try to help you out, too. Levan in Peckham, for example, separates its whites into sections like ‘Fresh and Easy’ or ‘Rich and Rounded’ and its reds under headings like ‘Savoury and Smoky’ or ‘Light and Bright’. Figuring out which of those flavour profiles you’re in the mood for makes choosing your glass, carafe, or bottle a whole lot easier. But how do you order a bottle of wine at a restaurant? And, more importantly, how do you make it seem like you know what you’re doing when you haven’t got a clue?
Speaking to your sommelier is also one of the best ways to get stuck in. They’ll know more than just about anyone why certain bottles are on the wine list and they should be able to direct you to what you’re after.
“I think people are often intimidated or afraid of asking for help, or ashamed of how little they know perhaps,” says Claire Strickett, the co-author of Which Wine When, “but just think of it as a chance to invite someone to share their passion with you. People who love wine love to talk about it and anyone worth their salt would never judge you for what you don't know. If there's a sommelier, then ask them. If not, then ask your server if they are familiar with the list. Don't be ashamed about being clear on your budget. Tell them what you're ordering to eat. Tell them what you usually know and like to drink. Tell them if you're looking for something that will feel similar to what you usually drink or if you want to be taken out of your comfort zone. And ask if you can try whatever is recommended before you order a bottle.”
The trick is, of course, using the right terminology to help them know what it is you’re looking for or being able to know exactly what it is you like. Telling someone with years of experience that you’re after a “dry white” is… not all that helpful, to be honest. Using words like “bright” or “acidic” (or even “sweet” if that’s what takes your fancy) will be of much more use.
Ben McVeigh is the head sommelier at Peckham Cellars. He’s had more glasses of chilled Beaujolais than you’ve had hot dinners and knows a thing or two about talking to wine heads like himself.
“Think about what you like to drink stylistically,” says Ben, “do you like your white wines fresh and crisp, or full and rich? Do you like your reds crunchy and juicy, or rich and ripe? Do you like your orange wines clean and classy or weird and wonderful? Use these terms to help your server understand what you are looking for and they’ll make sure you’re on the right track.”
If you’re not sure what you actually like, and that’s totally okay, I’d recommend getting an app like Vivino and using it to track the bottles you’re buying, drinking, and enjoying. The more you rate what you’ve drank, the more you’ll get a clearer picture of your own preferences.
Doing some research will also give you a better idea of the wine landscape as a whole and help you identify which restaurants have wine lists that you personally vibe with. “Even experienced winos are often faced with a list of bottles in a restaurant that they know nothing about, where many of which have all the subtlety and finesse of industrial drain cleaner,” says Dan Keeling, the co-founder and editor of Noble Rot magazine and restaurants. Having recently co-authored The Noble Rot Book: Wine from Another Galaxy with Andrew Mark, Dan is responsible for disseminating some of the most succinct and coherent wine information going.
“If the restaurateur has an interest in quality food and drink,” adds Dan, “they’ll work with small domaines that care about sustainable farming and expressing the place they are from, rather than large commercial ‘brands’ who cut corners and to make generic wines.”
Drinking red wine with red meat and white wine with fish is one of those agreed-upon combinations but don’t be afraid to follow your instinct when you’re ordering a bottle. There’s no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to what you want to drink. And you shouldn’t let a snooty somm tell you otherwise.
“I always like breaking the rules,” laughs Crispin’s sommelier Stefano Cazzato, “nothing is set in stone when it comes to wine pairing and it often boils down to preference. Having orange wines on the list at Crispin, for instance, allows me to experiment with all sorts and eases those in who are less familiar with unconventional matches. One of my favourite pairings is crab meat with a banging light funky red that you can just whack in an ice bucket or a grippy orange with slow-cooked lamb, fucking yum.”
Finding your own personal yum is the most important thing of all when it comes to drinking wine and ordering wine at a restaurant. But if you do find yourself panicking, just try to remember Claire Strickett’s advice: “It’s okay not to be the expert. Just be confident in using the experts around you to get what you want. In wine as in life.”