Top Tips To Tackling A Wine List

There you are with your boss/clients/ in-laws/hot date. You’ve negotiated the awkward intros and deciphered the menu, when along comes the man in black threatening your composure, exposing your ignorance and risking your reputation by waving a loaded wine list in your face. With sweaty palms and a false smile you take what’s coming to you.

Quick decisions have to be made. People are relying on you. Get it wrong and the evening may be lost. Get it right and who knows what pleasures await you? But how do you select a wine which everyone is going to like? A wine which is going to match, or at least not do battle with, everyone’s choice of food (and of course they have, very inconsiderately, chosen completely different dishes). How to select a wine that will please, match, impress but also suit your pocket?



Always remember that the sommelier, or wine waiter, is your friend.

However much you may know about wine he (or increasingly she) will certainly know the wines on their list better than you, and which work well with what’s being cooked up in the kitchen. It’s their job. They do this every day, twice, lunchtime and evening. Almost all wine professionals ask the sommelier for their advice, opinion and confirmation. And sommeliers loved to be asked.



Don’t worry that the sommelier will immediately select the most expensive wine on the list, they won’t. They want to make sure you can afford to leave a tip and come back for a return visit.

To let a sommelier know what sort of price you were thinking of, quickly scan the list and point to the price rather than the wine, letting them know this is what you were thinking of. They’ll understand.

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Where there is no helpful wine waiter, and sadly this is all too often the case in the UK, then you are on your own to do battle with curious grape varieties, meaningless vintages, regions you’ve never heard of and descriptions that suggest you might be drinking the juice from a tin of Fruit Cocktail.

With a little preparation you could learn a bit about wine (courses, tastings, books, blogs, newspapers) or at least check out the restaurant list online the night before so you can Google one or two wines and see if they are the styles you are likely to enjoy.



  • House wines are not always as bad as you might fear.

Some are extremely good but yes, this is often where the biggest margins are made.

  • More expensive wines are sometimes better value

The mark-up tends to be less.

  • Stick to young white wine…

…unless you know you like older styles.

  • Aged rosés can actually be great food matches

However, most are not. Don’t take the risk. Go young. And watch out; many are too sweet for food.

  •  Don’t go for the wine you see on your supermarket shelf

Live a little! Try something new.

  • New world wines tend to be fruitier

They are more immediately pleasurable as well as generally more reliable, but you may have had enough after a glass. Old world (basically European) wines tend to be more rewarding with food.

  • When matching your wine with food, think weight rather than colour

That means light wines with fish and salads, heavier wines with protein and carbs.

  • Don’t ignore the sparkling wines

These can also work brilliantly with food. Don’t confine them to the aperitif wine.

  • Be wary of half bottles

Half bottles are great if one of you wants red and the other white but do check the vintages. Half bottles don’t last as long and they tend not to be the fast sellers.



When the wine arrives, make sure you taste it before all the glasses are poured

You can’t send a wine back because, despite all your best efforts and careful deliberation, you don’t like it. But you can if it is faulty. Usually the fault will be because the wine is corked. It would smell nasty like damp, mouldy carpets, and you should ask for it to be replaced.

In my experience, if you aren’t sure whether or not it is corked, it generally is – if you detect just a hint of something vaguely unpleasant the likelihood is that it will get worse with oxygen, so after 10 minutes you can be sure. Should your evening be going so well that you order a second bottle, insist on checking that one, too, in a separate glass.  If you don’t and it’s corked, all the wine already in the glass will be spoilt.



The most important thing with a wine list is not to be wary of it.

Take time to read it through – the first time you might go for a failsafe wine, but the next you might be happy to experiment a little. Soon you will be confident in your choice because the wines look familiar to you. Whatever your selection, remember that wine is a joy, a pleasure, and should be anything but hard work.





First published on Dine Birmingham 02/13