How to choose wine at a restaurant

July 9, 2009

Think a wine list is written in a foreign language? Here’s how to decipher the code and get a stellar bottle of plonk on a budget writes editor, Melissa.

I have recently realised that I am now past the age where I can drink cheap, nasty wine when I got out with friends and feign innocence. I have crossed over into that world of “catch-up dinners” when you leave the clubs behind in favour of actually being able to hear your friends talk and not spill your drink all over you (well, sort of, anyway).

With that comes a desire, no, make that a need, to know what in the world I am choosing when I look at a wine list. And to clue us up on all things wine related we have called upon only the best in wine expert Matt Skinner.

Matt oversees wine operations for the Fifteen group worldwide (yes that’s Jamie Oliver’s restaurants) and he has written several books and columns. So we guess he knows what he’s talking about! Which is a good thing since here are his top tips for how to choose a wine in a restaurant from his book “Heard It Through The Grapevine”.

Don’t use the second cheapest bottle trick

We all know that buying wine in a restaurant can be tricky and intimidating, and that a wine list you can’t navigate can be all it takes to dampen a night out. Throw in some good old-fashioned pompous service and you have most people’s idea of dining hell.

But come on! Every smart wine buyer in town knows the “second-cheapest bottle trick”, and as a result many less scrupulous buyers price the second-cheapest bottle to be the most profitable one on their list so avoid this trap.

Go by the glass

Buying wine by the glass or half bottle is worth considering, as both mean you can vary what you drink without having to buy multiple bottles. Just make sure that the wine is fresh (ie: has not been opened days before)! If in doubt, check with the sommelier or manager.

Don’t be afraid to experiement

Often the best tasting wines are the ones which come from lesser-known regions so don’t be afraid to pick something different. If you know what styles you like then just ask the waiter or manager to tell you about the wines or make a suggestion. If it is a decent restaurant, they should know which ones are good! Just be specific about what you want so they can choose the right bottle for you.

Make notes of what you drink

Actually take the time to look at the labels on the bottles you drink so you can start to familiarise yourself with different brands. Then every time you try a different wine, make a note of whether you liked it or not and stick it to your fridge. That way you will get a good list of a few nice wines you know you like so you can order them when out with friends.

Want more? Check out “Heard It Through The Grape Vine: How To Buy, Choose And Drink Wine,” by Matt Skinner, $39.99.

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