Choosing a wine from a wine list can be difficult and I’m not just talking about what to match with what you’re eating. Is there such a thing as good value from a wine list and, if so, how do you get it? Can house wines be trusted? Should I stick to the brands I recognise? Here at Waters Wine we’ve put together this handy guide to help you get the best out of a wine list, wherever you are.
Should I ask the sommelier?
Wine waiters and Sommeliers have never had so much knowledge, and they know their list and what works with the food better than anyone. It’s always worth asking for advice, but bear in mind that they’ll take one look at you and your table and draw assumptions. Assumptions of taste, knowledge and most importantly, what they think you might stretch to spend.
To avoid the embarrassment of their natural assumptions, always specify the amount you wish to spend (and a good sommelier will ask you this question anyway.) Bear in mind that it’s not an auction limit, rather a guide. So, if the Sommelier is passionate and enthusiastic about a wine a little over your budget, get it and put the cost out of your mind.
Most venues don’t have a Sommelier or wine waiter, however, or you may wish to make the decision yourself. Every list, occasion, group, dish and context is different, but you can still apply the same rules if the wine list is in a local pub or chic inner-city bistro.
It all comes down to the price. Know what you won’t regret spending is my best advice. And think of your price guide as an anchor point, rather than a dead weight to pleasure. What price on trying something you’ve never had before? And if that doesn’t work, and particularly if you have children and only go out once a year, think of the cost of that bottle spread over 12 months. Nothing.
Matching the food
If you have a little knowledge, use it. If not, get your phone out and ask Google. Food and wine matching can be a minefield, but to be safe, stick to the basics:
- Red meat
- Tomato based pizza, pasta
- White meat
- Creamy sauces
Ask the table
Ask your fellow diners what they feel like and gain some consensus. The trick is to keep as many people happy as possible, even if the match with your dish isn’t perfect. Close enough, is good enough if the food and wine are tasty. And chances are, they’re paying some of the bill too!
Look for older vintages
This is particularly true for imports. The Aussie dollar fluctuates and so does the cost of imported wines. Most wine importers don’t currency hedge, so they pass on the cost, whatever it is. The late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw high quality imported wine going for prices not seen in decades. Many established lists will have bits and pieces from this period still knocking around. Snap em’ up!
Look for unfashionable wine regions
This is a massive one for me. You will always pay more for a Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Margaret River and so on. Instead, look for classic wine regions that aren’t as cool. Frankland River, Hunter Valley, Loire Valley, Beaujolais, anything from Germany, Chablis, the Jura and the list goes on. Many of these wine regions are fashionable amongst the wine crowd, but that doesn’t translate into the wider world of general punters.
For example, if oysters are to be ordered and wine matched, you have plenty of options that will work. Chablis, Muscadet, young Hunter Valley Semillon, Blanc de Blanc Champagne, off-dry or dry Riesling and Picpoul De Pinet. There are loads of others, but these will be the most common ones on a good wine list. For me, Champagne’s out as too expensive. So why not a less expensive sparkling wine, Muscadet, or Hunter Valley Semillon? These are always excellent choices and you can bet your bottom dollar they will be some of the cheapest wines on the list.
If you can stretch your budget, do it. The margins for restaurants decrease, the greater the cost of the bottle wholesale, unless the wine is an icon (see below). However, expensive wine needn’t be famous. You should be buying to maximise pleasure and not to impress the next table, friends or the in-laws. This is where your personal knowledge, or the expertise of the Sommelier comes in to get you more bang for your buck!
Avoid ‘icon’ wines
Unless there’s a compelling reason, avoid these at all costs. Penfolds Grange, Chateau Petrus, Selosse Champagne, Krug, you know the score. Occasionally, you might find one going cheap, usually if the venue’s wine list is a bit top heavy, or they need to bank some dollars. Otherwise, they’re a bloody rip off.
What about the house wine?
Avoid at all costs too. This is dross, made in factories. The margin for house wines is disgraceful. And they taste disgusting, famous brand or otherwise. The least expensive wine on the list is usually in the same vein as house wine, but not always. Better establishments will have put a lot more thought into less expensive wines but the fact remains, these wines are the cash cows of venues. The wine never tastes good when it’s costing you $65 a bottle, and you saw it at your local bottle shop for $15. The wine may be adequate, but I hate knowing I’m being ripped off.
Or the wine of the month?
Often on the table at your local club or pub, a sticky laminated placard displaying the wine of the month. Generally, I find these wines to be of excellent value. It’s not a good look if the wine of the month is the crappiest wine on the list. Furthermore, these wines sell well, and are discounted by the supplier to the venue. If you want something solid and good value, they are hard to go past. More often than not, the wines are well known brands and won’t set the world on fire. But it’ll go down well enough with the Roast of the Day.
And always drink the best wine first……
Or near enough. As tongues and belts loosen, so do purse strings. So why bother spending big bucks when you can’t taste the difference. I make this mistake all the time. I’m at my most benevolent towards the end of the night. How many times, have I woken up the next day and gazed upon the debris of a treasured bottle from the cellar or remembered an expensive wine off the wine list, bought at the end of the night. So often it’s wasted. If you think the table’s in for the long haul, start high and end cheap. Otherwise it’s perverse, and expensive.