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Who's afraid of the big bad wine list?

by Helen McGinn
Who's afraid of the big bad wine list?
Illustration: Charlie Clapp

Does your heart sink every time the waiter hands you the wine list? Never fear, says drinks expert Helen McGinn – this handy guide will help you pick the perfect bottle every time.

Picture the scene:

You’ve chosen a lovely restaurant, everyone’s exclaiming delightedly over the menu... and then you’re handed the wine list. It’s enormous, confusing and everything looks so expensive. You start to flick through, looking for something – anything – to cling onto in a sea of unfamiliar names. What to do – go straight for the second cheapest and hope for the best? Or just pass it on for someone else to decide? Actually, neither. Because with these simple tips, you’ll be navigating the wine list like a pro in no time. Here’s what you do...

The price is right

When put on the spot, it’s easy to panic (happened to me in the hairdresser’s chair for years). So it’s better to have an idea of what you want before being asked and at least how much you want to spend. Set a budget and stick to it. No matter how good the wine – or food – it’ll leave a bitter taste if you’ve paid more than you wanted to.

If you don't ask, you don't get

Don’t be shy to ask for advice. If the person serving you seems to know their stuff, then ask what they’d recommend. ‘The best sommeliers will ask you what you like, rather than telling you what they like,’ says master sommelier Ronan Sayburn of London’s 67 Pall Mall. Most of them are dying to share their knowledge so they can make your wine experience a positive one. And you are paying for it, after all.

Try before you buy

Nowadays, a good number of restaurants sell a wider range of wines by the glass or carafe, so you don’t have to commit to a whole bottle if you are unsure about your choice. This can make things really interesting; with a bit of forward planning, you can try a different wine with each course. If the wine waiter is pushing a particular bottle, ask if you can try it first. And when they pour you a little bit to sample before pouring the rest of the glass, don’t feel rushed. Simply give the glass a swirl, take a sniff and a slurp. If your nose wrinkles, trust your taste buds. It might be corked (if so, it’ll smell musty and horrible) or oxidised (a bit sherry-like). Ask for another bottle, nicely.

Nose out the bargains

Chances are you will pay more for the big names such as Chablis, Sancerre and Châteauneuf du Pape. It’s better to seek out similar wines from nearby vineyards where the wine, rather than the region, is the selling point. For example, similar to Châteauneuf is Cairanne; same grapes, nearby region, almost always cheaper. ‘Or look for familiar grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot but from less traditional areas – try a Sauvignon from Chile rather than the Loire valley, for example,’ suggests Sayburn.

Food matters

Putting the right wine with the right dish will make everything taste better. An easy way to do this is to think of the wine as sauce to the food. Just as you might squeeze a little lemon over a simply grilled piece of white fish, a light, citrussy white wine works brilliantly. Bubbles and batter are best friends, so put a sparkling number with your fish and chips. Red meats tend to work best with red wines but lighter reds, such as Pinot Noir, can work with fish and white meats too. And if you’re planning on fitting in a sweet wine – and you really should, they’re usually incredible value – then remember it’s a multitasker. From blue cheese to blueberry cheesecake, a sweetie is a great match.

House rules

Except it doesn’t always, when it comes to wine. The house wines are there to provide a safe bet, so in most cases they are very drinkable, just not always that memorable. If you’re going out, this is not the time to stick to the same old thing! Be brave and try something new. Not the obvious, expensive stuff – that’s there for the people trying to impress someone. Rather, sniff out the hidden gems. ‘Typically, this is where the real interest and value is to be found, so don’t be shy about engaging with the sommelier and asking them to recommend something interesting,’ says Mark Andrew, Master of Wine and owner of London’s Noble Rot wine bar.

Illustration: Charlie Clapp
Illustration: Charlie Clapp

Things you should never do:

Don't sniff the cork

You only need to sniff the wine to know if it’s faulty in any way, like being corked. Leave the sniffing of corks to those who just want to look like they know what they’re doing.

Don't sip without swirling

If a wine bottle has just been opened, the wine needs a chance to ‘relax’ and open up in the glass. Giving it a gentle swirl means you get the most out of the aromas and flavours.

Don't think older is better

Unless you know a particular wine well, it’s less risky to go for a younger vintage than an older one, especially for whites and rosés.

Don't be a bore

Spending ages poring over the wine list is no fun for whoever you’re with. Check out the wine list online beforehand if you really want to know what’s in store.


Three restaurants with corking wine lists:

The Laughing Heart, London

Cool east London restaurant with a penchant for quirky wines. There’s also a basement wine shop, so you can take your favourite bottle home.

Bellita, Bristol

This local favourite has a small but thoughtfully put-together wine list, entirely featuring wines produced by women.

The Bon Vivant, Edinburgh

Here you will find more than 40 delicious wines by the glass, plus a collection of rare and unusual spirits.

Visit Helen McGinn’s website:

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