28 Aug 2012

Guest Post: How to Choose Wine in a Restaurant

Joe Gilmour has worked for the past 9 years for Roberson Wine merchants and writes about Fine and Vintage wines. When he’s not online or at wine tastings in London he enjoys running, eating and shouting at the TV. 

A RITUAL familiar to those working in wine occurs when sat down with friends in a restaurant. The wine list is passed to you as if you are some sort of mystic oracle. You must choose the wine. You know wine. Later, if your friends are anything like mine and the wine isn't liked, your professional probity will be publicly challenged. All potentially very embarrassing...

So, how does one get the most out of a restaurant wine list? Here are my top tips...

1. Ask for a recommendation 
Always a good way to avoid the blame. Wherever I am, I always ask if the waiter likes the wine I've selected. Even if he's not a sommelier, he'll have an opinion and it's always worth listening to. If he is a sommelier, bingo. Tell him what you like, what your budget is and he'll do the rest. Sommeliers get a bad press, and it’s unfair. Most of them are passionate, informed, and will help you select a bottle of wine you can afford and enjoy, and perhaps you’ll get to try something you wouldn’t have naturally chosen. The best ones will do all this while making you feel empowered and entertained. Sommeliers are working in a role that has tough hours and often poor pay. They are doing it because they love wine. They are your friends.
2. Know your beans 
Not really a shortcut this, but if you know your stuff, you'll be able to spot interesting vintages and good value. All kinds of bargains are out there, from the 1st growths in rural Wales for half what you would pay in London, to interesting oddities in Parisian wine bars. I have heard so many tales of people in the wine trade driving through the middle of nowhere, stopping off for a bit of lunch and coming across gems on a wine-list. In quiet little places, wines can sit on lists for years and offer superb value. My current highlight is the Cherwell Boathouse in Oxford where you can come across a bottle of 1993 Montrachet from Comte Lafon for £300. If you were to buy that in Harrods, you would be paying closer to £1,000. Now this is dangerous because although that’s good value, it’s still not exactly a cheap bottle of wine and your girlfriend might not exactly appreciate your cries that ‘it’s cheap’.
Equally, when you know a bit about wine, you will know when you are being ripped off. A wine list might have hundreds of pages of the finest wines in the world but, unless they’re fairly priced, the wines are staying on the list and my money is staying in my pocket. If you really want to do your homework, many restaurants now offer their wine lists online. This gives you a perfect opportunity to do a little research and maybe even have some options in mind before going in. This will also stop you looking like a complete wally as you spend the first twenty minutes in silent contemplation of the wine-list.
3. Pick the least attractive option 
When I go into a restaurant, I often tend to pick the food that looks least attractive. Wait! There's a reason. When a chef constructs a menu, there are some dishes that he often has to put on. You know the kinds: crab salad, steak, that sort of thing. Then there are the dishes he puts on because he loves them: liver, offal and things like that. These are the thing that the chef loves and they will almost always be made with more care and consideration.
The same thing applies with wine. Trust me, a Slovenian Merlot will have to be twice as good as a French one to make it on to the wine list because, frankly, people will avoid it like the plague. So, try it, it will surprise you. Someone has fought to get it on the list...