Friday, 24 May 2013

Wine for Beginners: 5 Tips for Reading a Restaurant Wine List

Photo: Tobias Toft

The Michelin Starred Black Swan at Oldstead -
a brilliant restaurant with a stunning wine list.
So you are heading out to eat somewhere nice. All is going well, the pink stretch hummer that you
hired for the occasion turned up on time (you're so stylish and sophisticated) and the restaurant is über smart. You sit at the table and feeling a bit cocky, you ask to see the wine list.
You take a second to appreciate the nice leather cover before opening the list and proceed to crap your pants. What do you pick!? An easy G&T starts to sound very appealing...

Really knowing what to look for on an extensive wine list can only come with time and experience but you don’t have to be a Master of Wine to look like you know what you are talking about in front of company.

If you are in a restaurant that has pride in what they sell, all the wines on the list should be great, it’s just about picking a style that you fancy, the only problem is, if you aren't an experienced wine drinker, knowing what style to go for isn't easy.
So lets make this super simple using part of the wine list from the michelin starred Black Swan at Oldstead in North Yorkshire as an example, as this is exactly the sort of place you would take someone you are trying to impress (its really nice).

1. Eliminate most of the list straight away in one simple step. If you aren’t a confident wino (not a technical term), it's so much easier if you make as many decisions as you can before even opening the list. Ask whoever you are with what they fancy drinking; Red, White, Rosé, Fizz etc? 
Purely for ease of explanation, we're going with white (although this whole process applies to red and rosé too). 

This is just 1 page of the 9
page Wine List at the Black Swan
2. Mentally set a budget before you look at the list.  If you are taking someone out for a meal, be willing to spend as much as you can afford. Buying wine in a restaurant is always going to be more expensive than buying wine from a shop but this is because supposedly you are paying for the pleasure of nice surroundings and good service. A maximum of £30 should get you a good bottle of wine and provide enough choice in the majority of restaurants. Okay, £30 isn't what we'd normally call a budget bottle, but if you are on a date or taking someone out for their birthday, for example, you don't want to look like a tight old git.

Set your price before you look at the list, otherwise you may end up panicking and spending much more than you can afford, or just going for the cheapest option; missing out on a great wine and not making the most of the list.

So at this stage, you know you want a white wine at a maximum of £30 - going well so far, have a shot of vodka as a well done to yourself.

3. Decide what style of wine you want, rather than what type.
Now is when you want to use all the help a list gives you - the headings and notes.
Just about every restaurant with a hefty wine list will have it split into sections (if they don't they're massive tools, and even experienced wine lovers will struggle), whether that's by region, style, or price, they'll all help.

The Black Swan organises its wines by style - ideal for people who don't have a lot of wine knowledge. More often than not, if a list is not arranged by different styles, it will have tasting notes for each of the wines. Either way, at this point, decide what sort of style you would like.

Something crisp, zesty and dry is always a good idea if you want to play it safe. Currently, the most popular white wines on the market are of this style; Pinot Grigio and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to name just a couple – wines that you definitely will have tried before, even if you don’t know it! If you aren’t sure about the different flavour characteristics of wine and aren’t feeling too adventurous, stick with this style because there isn’t much to dislike. Obviously, this advice applies to any style of wine that you fancy though, whether it be fuller, oaked whites, aromatic whites, or whatever.

Using the paragraphs under the headings on this list (or individual tasting notes in other lists), you will see you want to be looking at the 'Young Burgundy-Style Wines' section. Remembering your budget that you settled on at the start, this narrows it down to: Grillo Lamura 2011, Pecorino Cantina Tollo 2011 and the St Veran Vers Le Mont Roger Luquet 2010 - all under the £30 mark. Just like that, you have narrowed down your choices from a hell of a lot, to just 3. Not bad eh? – Another shot of vodka, you deserve it.

4. Make your final choice with as much help as you need.
Because you clearly want to impress, you aren't going to go for the cheapest wine are you? Unless it looks totally awesome. So that leaves the Pecorino and the St Veran. What I would recommend now (unless you are particularly drawn to one of the two) is to ask the waiter which they would recommend. That will make you look like a total boss.

Or, it should do: we all know waiters/sommeliers can be another little minefield. They may try and up-sell, they may look down their nose at you, or they may be as clueless as you are. Either way, remember to trust your own instincts overall - you don't have to take the advice you're given if it doesn't appeal to you. And if they're condescending about your choice? Mate, you work here, so you should be proud of every bottle on your list. If it's not good enough for them, it's not good enough for their restaurant.

5. Don't worry too much about food matches. 
As far as food and wine matching is concerned, unless you are feeling super confident, don't worry about this just yet, that is something to think about once you have a good enough understanding of the different styles of wine. And anyway, unless you're both/all ordering pretty much the same thing, it won't really be possible to match one wine with half the bloody menu. The main thing is you choose a wine that you enjoy drinking and feel confident doing it.

Choosing wine from a mega list can be a very daunting experience but using these very simple steps and making most of your decisions before even opening the list is your best bet. Don't ever feel like you can't ask the waiter what they recommend, they are there to help and should really appreciate that you are asking their advice. It's a good idea to try and make a mental note of what you are drinking too, that way you can remember it and make an even quicker decision next time.

And if all else fails, you're apparently three shots of vodka down, so you should probably order the tequila anyway.

How do you feel about choosing wine in a restaurant? Tell us your top tips in the comments section below or on our twitter and facebook pages.


  1. Forget the vodka. The great thing about the Black Swan at Oldstead is the fantastic wine by the glass. Their wines by the glass are there precisely because they match the food. You say "Don't worry too much about food matches" - what a shame! What's the point of going somewhere like The Black Swan and asking your fellow guests if they fancy red or white? It is highly likely that they will enjoy both, but with different courses.
    I look forward to a blog from you about how fantastic it is to have a la carte food and a la carte wine by the glass.

    1. Hi TBS13 - we take your point! Wine by the glass is beautiful thing, but the selection at the Black Swan - while better than many - is still very limited in comparison to the rest of the wine on offer by the bottle.
      I know if the Vinspire team went out to dinner we'd be matching wine with each course (hell yes!) but as this piece was aimed at beginners who aren't sure where to start, we didn't want to put people off by demanding they match all the food as well as choosing a nice bottle. It's a great idea and one many a wine lover will opt for, but not 100% essential to a good meal, after all. ;-)
      But you're right - wine by the glass should be celebrated, so we'll do a piece on that soon. :-)