Being handed the wine list at a restaurant is a uniquely overwhelming feeling. A list can range anywhere from something reasonably sized to an insurmountable novel of names you can’t even hope to pronounce correctly. Time starts now. Your guests are waiting for you to make a smart decision.
If you have the right knowledge and do your homework, you can easily make a decision that tastes great, impresses your guests, and keeps your wallet happy.
#1 – Research ahead of time
You stare at the top of the list and don’t dare to let your eyes venture further down in fear of what you may find. There is no worse sensation in the world than feeling unqualified. Fortunately, in this particular situation, there’s an easy fix.
If a restaurant has a website, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find a wine list online as well. If this isn’t the case, you may even consider calling ahead to speak with a sommelier (this is especially helpful if you’d like to plan something special). Once you’ve got a working list, go to a database like Wine-Searcher and look up the names you’re interested in to check pricing.
Tip: If the restaurant is selling the bottle for about twice the retail value, then it’s a good deal. Generally, wine is marked up about 3 times the retail.
#2 – Don’t be afraid to ask the waiter.
The wine list is in your hand, and there’s a server hanging over your shoulder, pressing you for an answer. The sommelier isn’t there to give you a pop quiz on wine. They’re there to assist you.
Getting advice from a sommelier or onsite wine expert is the next step in picking a great wine. It is their job to intimately know every wine on the list, so you should never be afraid to tap their wealth of information. As a bonus, sommeliers are passionate about wine and most will be eager to talk about it.
Tip: If you don’t want to mention your budget in front of your guests for whatever reason, simply point to a price you are comfortable with and ask for ‘something in this region’. The sommelier should understand.
#3 – Pick a wine that pairs with a broad range of food
As you frantically skim the list, you listen to the general murmurings of your guests as they peruse the menu. Their decisions range from steak to salad and you attempt to factor all their choices when choosing the wine.
Ask your guests if they would prefer red or white wine, and narrow the list down from there. Pick a wine that pairs well with a plethora of dishes, and try not to stress over finding the ideal bottle that will enhance the taste of everyone’s meal while still being budget friendly.
Tip: There are wines that do well across a wide range of foods; those with moderate acidity and some residual sugar go best to balance many foods. White grapes like a dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino. For Red, Cotes du Rhone, Pinot Noir, Barbera and Garnacha do well with many foods.
#4 – Pick a wine from a more recent vintage
You’ve narrowed the list some by choosing between red and white. Yet, even with the sommelier’s help, you’re still a bit overwhelmed.
Consider selecting a wine from a more recent vintage. Since the age-ability of wine isn’t guaranteed, it’s less dicey to pick a bottle on the newer end of the spectrum. The younger the wine is, the less likely it is to have developed faults and should still be very fresh and vibrant.
Tip: Within a more recent vintage, look for a wine that’s in the lower/mid-price range, focus on 2013 to 2015.
#5 – Pick a wine from a warmer climate
Wine from a warmer climate tends to have a better value more consistently. In warmer climates, the weather is more constant and the drop in temperature from summer into fall is at a slower, steadier rate; this, in turn, gives the grape plenty of time to ripen and become balanced.
Tip: Try a wine from Italy or Spain. On average, they’ll be less expensive than a wine from a well-known vineyard in France, but will still be of good quality with a high probability of being a very tasty wine.
#6 – Bonus! (if you’re feeling adventurous) Look for an outlier wine
Find out where the sommelier is from and ask him/her for suggestions from their region as they will most likely have a selection of wines close to home that are very good and unique gems that will impress. “An unusual wine will have generally earned its place on the list through sheer quality” – Jancis Robin (British wine critic, journalist and wine writer).