5 TIPS TO HELP YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT WINE AT A RESTAURANT
24 Mar 2022
What even is that?
Ordering wine at a restaurant or wine bar can be high pressure, something most good sommeliers (aka wine waiters) will acknowledge. Whether you’re the one handed the list, or your friends put you in charge (“you choose, I’m easy with whatever, as long as it's not blah blah….”) many of us get stage fright, and with good reason. It’s almost like looking at a long list of songs you’ve never heard of, some in other languages, and you’re nominated to pick only one to listen to for the rest of the evening. You’ve got this right?
To cut to the chase, ask the DJ- ie. Utilise the Somm or waiter- They know every wine on the list the same way a DJ knows exactly what track they're about to play. Though more on this later.
The below tips are written by a self-titled ‘un-wanky sommelier’ for ordering wine at a wine bar or restaurant that has an equal focus on wine as food, not a Belgian beer cafe, though some things may overlap! Hopefully they help point you in the right direction.
- 1. Reading the list
Chances are, if you’re at a nice restaurant or wine bar, the wine list will reflect this. Really good lists will have no poor quality wines (duds) regardless of price point. Lists generally specify what style (ie Sparkling, white, orange, pink, red). This order is generally accepted as how you should be drinking, ie Starting with a glass of fizz, and finishing with a red. They also list what variety(s) and the wine region in which they were produced. In some cases, such as Celeste, they are also listed in an even more specific order, Light bodied to full bodied or, alternatively by price, vintage, country, of origin etc etc. Look for these points initially, and try to pull out key words or familiar regions/varieties to get a jist. For example, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. Wines like this tend to be fairly ‘uniform’ in their expression, so I would consider these in the ‘safe’ category.
- 2. Establish a price point -
It’s handy to go into it with a budget, albeit loose. If you're only looking to spend, say $65/$80/$150 this handily shortens your list of possible options, so just stick with it. Note; ordering the cheapest wine on the list shouldnt be embarrassing, it is there for exactly that reason. Side note- typically the most expensive wines represent the best value in terms of markup.
- 3. Glass or bottle
If you’re keen on trying several different wines, ‘by the glass’ is a good option, and despite historically being more heavily marked up than full bottles, these days they are becoming more representative of the bottle value. Many places with a good wine offering will also give you a taste, just ask! Though for the sake of the restaurant, limit this to 1 or 2 max.. It’s not a winery cellar door! If you don’t like it (that’s fine), saying why, even in a weird way, really helps narrow the search.
A bottle of wine has 5 x 150mL glasses, so if you’re with a group who are all happy to have a glass of the same wine together, I'd encourage looking at the full wine list and splitting several bottles (if you’re that way inclined!). If you are ordering sparkling as a group, I would always go for a full bottle to ensure it is freshest and at its most fizzy! Sparkling served by the glass is notoriously fickle to keep bubbly.
- 4. Use the Somm or staff
It’s their job and they love what they do! Don’t be shy, if you're sat with someone who thinks they know alot about wine, chances are the wine waiter or staff knows more, particularly when it comes to their own list.
More and more restaurant’s and wine bars wine lists nowadays are assembled by wine enthusiasts who want to encourage their customers to drink well.
Keep in mind whatever you ask, I’m sure they have heard worse. There are several things you can do to help them help you.
- - What you feel like?
- - What Colour?
- - What style?
- - What variety?
- - Light, medium, full bodied?
- - Is there something you’ve had somewhere else that you liked?
- - Price point? - with price, just come out and say it. Keep in mind that ‘Unwankey somms’ don’t drink top shelf wines every night. If your budget can only afford you wines from the lower end, own it! A good wine list has balance and, in theory, no ‘duds’.
If you’re more adventurous or have no idea what you feel like, ask them ‘what they’re excited by at the moment?’.
Side note- Kiwi’s have ‘dry’ palates, meaning almost all wine on wine lists in New Zealand will be considered ‘dry’. If you fancy something sweeter, now's the time to mention it!
- 5. Mix it up
It’s fun trying new things, no? If you like Sauvignon Blanc, and that's all you drink, ask if there’s something similar but different. Alway order rose? Try a chilled red. Heard of orange wine? Now you have.
If you are ordering for a group, instead of asking for another bottle of the same, “is there something different you’d suggest?” If you’ve enjoyed your first glass of whatever it was, this makes the server's job of recommending the second significantly easier and likely more accurate.
BONUS TOP TIPS
- - Sommelier is pronounced suh·meh·lee·ay, though saying ‘Somm’ or wine waiter is more than acceptable
- - Don’t not order it because you can’t pronounce it! Wines like Viogner (vee-o-nyay) and Gewürztraminer (ga-vurtz-tra-me-ner) have been overlooked for years based on the uncertain pronunciation. Just go for it, you won’t get told off!
- - If you're with someone and you want to avoid coming across as tight, there are other ways to ask ‘is that cheap one any good?’. Point or mention a wine at the price you’re comfortable paying for, or “I had this last time and really liked it, is there something similar but different?” We know what you’re doing… but props for the execution.
- - Food & Wine pairing - this is contentious, but there is a time and place for it, likely at a fine diner or where ‘wine pairing’ is offered next to a set menu. Loose rules are white with white, red with red. Sparkling works with almost anything as do light reds and rose. From experience, dark chocolate and chardonnay are about as bad as it gets, though I’ll save this for its own post..
- - New Zealand's calibre of wine professionals has increased in recent years, the return of many expats who had been killing it in Europe and the States etc and have brought all they’ve learnt but remain very much ‘Kiwi’ in their service styles.
- - There has been an increase in importers and distributors within the last couple of years too, making writing a wine list far more interesting and diverse than it ever has been.
- - Don’t forget Sparkling, if you’ve had a full meal and ended on a big red, we often get asked ‘what’s next?’, my suggestion is always fizz, back to the start bby!
- - Asking questions is fun; as mentioned above, whatever you ask is very unlikely to be the silliest your server has heard. Imagine if you asked just a couple of things everytime you ordered a glass, it really does all add up, you’ll refine what you do and don’t like in no time.