How To Order And Sample Wine When You Have Zero Idea What You're Doing

Fake it 'til you make it 🍷

We’ve all been there: you’re in a restaurant, starring cluelessly at the wine list while the waiter stands expectantly waiting to hear your selection.

You choose the second from cheapest and hope no one notices, especially if you’re on a first date.

Just when you think you’ve survived the ordeal, your waiter is back asking who would like to “sample the wine”. Cue rabbit-in-headlights eyes from everyone at the table.

While there’s no shame in being a wine novice, there are certain situations where we’d all rather not expose ourselves as amateurs.

With that in mind, we spoke to two wine experts to find out how to fake it ’til you make it.

John Fedele via Getty Images

1) What should you do if a wine list is boggling your mind?

If you look down at a wine list in a restaurant or bar and don’t recognise a single name, don’t panic, there are ways to navigate the list without admitting you don’t know what you’re doing.

Katie Smith, national account executive at Bibendum Wine, says you shouldn’t just go for the second cheapest bottle.

“A good restaurant will have their wine list separated by style. This can often help you more than flowery tasting notes,” she tells HuffPost UK.

You should also consider asking the waiter, waitress or sommelier for a recommendation based on your tastes.

“Telling staff what style of wine you normally like helps, for example, ‘light-bodied and dry’, ‘rich and spicy’,” Katie adds.

“There are also some brilliant apps out there like Plonk or Vivino, which allow you to scan or search for a bottle of wine and give you a description and ratings.”

Alternatively Café Rouge’s resident wine expert Richard Pryor recommends working out how much you want to spend, then adding 10%.

“Towards the bottom of the list, quality improves dramatically with only small increases in price due to the fact that all the fix costs are the same (transport, bottling, duty etc.)” he tells HuffPost UK.

2) What are you meant to do when asked if you’d like to ‘sample the wine’ before pouring?

When a restaurant asks you if you’d like to sample the wine before they pour you should go for it, because this is your chance to see if it’s corked.

Richard explains: “This is not bits of cork floating about in the glass, but a chemical compound called trichloroanisole which can be found in about 5% of wines bottled under cork and results in a mouldy, wet cardboard sort of a smell.”

Katie agrees that this process “is not just for wine snobs” and says you should start by looking at the wine to see if it is nice and bright in colour.

“If it’s cloudy or hazy that could be signs of a fault. If there is sediment in your glass, the restaurant should have decanted this out as it can be unpleasant to drink,” she says.

“If you see crystals have formed in your glass that look like shards of glass, don’t panic. These are completely harmless and often happen when a wine hasn’t been overly filtered, which is the case with some organic or natural wines.”

The next thing to do is swirl the wine around in your glass using the stem to “allow oxygen in the air into the wine, which enhances the aromas”.

“Next give it a good sniff,” Katie continues. “This is important for checking if there are any faults. If there is a cork taint then the wine can smell musty.”

She added that faults can also happen with screw-cap wines.

“If you smell rotten eggs or nail varnish remover, send it back straight away,” she says.

“You can also check for faults by having a taste. Practice drawing the wine around in your mouth so your taste buds get the full impact. If the wine doesn’t taste quite right, don’t be afraid to query it with staff.”

Unfortunately if you simply don’t like the wine you’ve chosen at this stage there’s very little you can do about it. Richard explains that in this case, the customer isn’t always right.

“I’m afraid it’s your fault. The best way round this is to ask whether you could have a quick taste at the point of ordering it,” he says.

“Any restaurant that refuses you this perfectly reasonable request doesn’t deserve your patronage.”

3) What’s a go-to safe order for red, white and rosé wine?

For Katie, wine choices really depend on personal taste.

“If you are in a big group and want some crowd-pleasing options, then a merlot - a medium-bodied, easy-drinking red - is a safe bet,” she says.

“For white wine, Sauvignon Blanc is a popular choice. It’s crisp and dry and versatile with lots of different dishes.”

She says rosé is a tricky one because preferences often depend on whether or not you have a sweet tooth. If you do, there’s nothing wrong with Zinfandel.

“Try Provence rosé from the South of France if you are looking for something drier and food-friendly,” Katie adds.

Meanwhile Richard recommends picking “a nice bottle of Burgundy” if in doubt.

“The reds are almost all Pinot Noir and the whites Chardonnay, so will please the vast majority,” he says.

Where rosé is concerned, Richard advises looking for the “palest pink hue” to ensure “a crisp, mouth-watering glass”.

Katie points out that drinking red wine with chocolate or white wine with steak isn’t usually recommended, but “you should never feel like an amateur whatever you order” because “exploring different varieties is one of the most fun things about the wine world”.

4) What wine should you bring if you’re going to a dinner party?

If you want to be a real wine geek, Katie says you should check what food your host is serving before selecting your wine.

“Again there are some great apps out there like Pocket Wine which gives you a food and wine pairing guide with specific dishes and food types,” she says.

“Malbec is a good choice if red meat is being served and an off-dry Riesling is fabulous with Asian-inspired spices.”

Most importantly don’t get stressed about presenting your host with the “right wine” - you can always suggest they save it for another day if they’ve already purchased a perfect pairing.

5) Cork or screw-top? Does it really make a difference?

A recent study by Oxford University reportedly found that seeing and hearing a cork popping can psychologically make us believe that the wine is better quality. But according to Katie, while we may have positive associations with corked wine, it isn’t always better.

“It’s a complete myth that screw-cap wines are lower quality. Screw caps are brilliant for preserving the freshness in wine and are less likely to be faulty than wines with a cork closure,” she says.

“Cork is better for wines intended to age, as it is a natural material that allows the wine to ‘breathe’ a little over time.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Richard says he actually prefers screw-top wine over corked.

“Put simply, we Brits are far too polite or lacking in confidence when it comes to making a fuss when a wine’s corked, meaning far too many people are buying and drinking corked wines,” he says.

“The screw-top solves this problem. Fortunately, the glorious snobbery inherent in the wine trade means the cork and the theatre that goes with it will be with us for a while.”

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