Wine is a damn delicious beverage but I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t half confusing. From science-y sounding terms like brettanomyces which give me flashbacks of GCSE Biology to intricate winemaking techniques like carbonic maceration, there’s heaps of wine jargon and terminology that can take weeks of research to properly get your head round. Not everyone, of course, has time for that and not everyone wants to dive that deep into things. One thing, though, that I’m sure everyone who drinks alcohol wants to be able to do is order wine at a restaurant without looking like a complete doughnut.
Not knowing your Burgundy from your Barolo becomes especially stressful when it comes to ordering a bottle when you’re at a restaurant and you’re unsure what the best move for you (and your wallet) is going to be. There’s never any shame in going for the house wine or the cheapest bottle available. There’s also no shame in doing that classic date night move of ordering the second cheapest bottle because you don’t want to make it seem like you’re a cheapskate but you’re also heavily into your overdraft.
Wine lists can be as thick as the Order of the Phoenix and twice as difficult to decipher. That being said, some wine lists will try to help you out, too. Levan in Peckham, for example, separates its whites into sections like ‘Fresh and Easy’ or ‘Rich and Rounded’ and its reds under headings like ‘Savoury and Smoky’ or ‘Light and Bright’. Figuring out which of those flavour profiles you’re in the mood for makes choosing your glass, carafe, or bottle a whole lot easier. But how do you order a bottle of wine at a restaurant? And, more importantly, how do you make it seem like you know what you’re doing when you haven’t got a clue?
Speaking to your sommelier is also one of the best ways to get stuck in. They’ll know more than just about anyone why certain bottles are on the wine list and they should be able to direct you to what you’re after.
“I think people are often intimidated or afraid of asking for help, or ashamed of how little they know perhaps,” says Claire Strickett, the co-author of Which Wine When, “but just think of it as a chance to invite someone to share their passion with you. People who love wine love to talk about it and anyone worth their salt would never judge you for what you don't know. If there's a sommelier, then ask them. If not, then ask your server if they are familiar with the list. Don't be ashamed about being clear on your budget. Tell them what you're ordering to eat. Tell them what you usually know and like to drink. Tell them if you're looking for something that will feel similar to what you usually drink or if you want to be taken out of your comfort zone. And ask if you can try whatever is recommended before you order a bottle.”
The trick is, of course, using the right terminology to help them know what it is you’re looking for or being able to know exactly what it is you like. Telling someone with years of experience that you’re after a “dry white” is… not all that helpful, to be honest. Using words like “bright” or “acidic” (or even “sweet” if that’s what takes your fancy) will be of much more use.
Ben McVeigh is the head sommelier at Peckham Cellars. He’s had more glasses of chilled Beaujolais than you’ve had hot dinners and knows a thing or two about talking to wine heads like himself.