We’ve all been there: You’re out with friends or on a date, you’re ushered to a table, you sit down and suddenly someone plonks the wine list in front of you. You open it, it seems to be full of gibberish – what the hell is a Beaujolais? – but everyone is looking at you and the waiter is hovering slightly impatiently overhead. You need to pick something, and soon. So you hurriedly score the list for a familiar word, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, it doesn’t matter. You pick the first thing you recognise (and can afford) and hand the book back to the waiter as quickly as you can.

Don’t stress, it’s just a wine list

First of all, relax. It’s just wine. There is so much pomp and ceremony that it’s easy to forget that the whole point of wine is enjoyment. And hopefully after reading this post you will feel a whole lot more confident next time someone hands you the wine list.

How wine lists are structured:

There’s no official rule but most lists tend to follow the same structure, with wines listed according to body type, price and of course colour. So a typical list would look like this:

Light-bodied whites
Full-bodied whites
Light-bodied reds
Full-bodied reds
Fortified and/or sweet wines

So, if the wine list is just a single page then the wines near the top are likely to be either sparkling or light bodied whites and the ones down the bottom are likely to be full-bodied reds or fortified wines. Within each category, wines will also be listed according to price, with the cheapest at the top and most expensive at the bottom, which brings us to the next point?

How much should I spend?

The simple answer is the most obvious one: spend as much or as little as you want. There’s no shame in ordering the cheapest option on the menu – only bankers and show-offs go for the most expensive end of the list. A lot of people order the second cheapest option to save face, but every sommelier and restaurant owner knows what you are up to when you do that. The less principled operators could use your vanity against you by increasing the mark-up on that particular wine, or using that spot on the list to offload the dodgy plonk they want to get rid of.

If you’re looking for something you and your companions will enjoy, the best thing to do is to decide between you what kind of wine you’re after: white or red, light or full bodied, sweet or dry, perhaps a favoured grape variety or region and either see if something stands out on the list or ask your sommelier/waiter for help.

Don’t be afraid of the Somm

I know a lot of people have come away from encounters with sommeliers feeling baffled and overwhelmed. Sometimes it can seem like they are speaking an advanced dialect of a language of which you only know a few words; but you are helping to pay their wages and they are there to help you. If they aren’t communicating in a way that’s clear to you, there’s no shame in asking them to speak more directly.

Some questions you can ask:

Can you recommend something sweet/dry?
I really like (insert wine name/type here) do you have anything like that?
We’re going to order X for dinner, what would go well with that?
I don’t want to spend too much money, can you recommend something in my price range?


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