How To Read A Wine List Like An Expert

11th February 2020

Choosing wine should be a fun, relaxing experience. But why do so many of us prickle with sweat at the sight of an unknown grape, or panic order the same variety again and again to save the embarrassment of pronouncing another option incorrectly.  Sommelier and wine expert Lucy Lettice gives her top wine tips to help you choose your wines confidently, with her pick of the best wine lists in London.

wine bottle

1. By the bottle or by the glass?

The so-called trade ‘secret’ is true. Glasses carry a higher margin than the bottle so it is worth trading up if you’re thinking about budget. Saying that, why not go for two slightly pricier glasses instead of a bottle if you want to be more adventurous. 

The Terroirs wine bar in Central London or East Dulwich has a wine list that’s perfectly set out for trying new wines by the glass.

2. Red wine with meat? White wine with fish? Don’t sweat the small stuff

Don’t worry about strict food and wine pairings, unless you’re doing a tasting menu, in which case I would 100% recommend doing the wine pairing too. Notting Hill’s Core wine pairing menu is definitely worth it for a special treat.  

A couple of pointers you could follow: if you’re eating spicy dishes, look for an aromatic white such as Riesling. If you’re eating fatty or oily foods, go for high acidity wines such as a Montepulciano or Pinot Grigio. For smoked or barbecued foods, look for oaked reds such as Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon.

3. Old World wines versus New World wines. Which to choose?

There’s a common myth that Old World wines will always be better than New World wines. But that’s not necessarily true. 

So Old World generally refers to wines from Europe. Fruit-forward Tempranillos from Spain, your jammy and tannic Cabernet Sauvignons from France, your light-bodied Sangioveses and ever-so-approachable Pinot Grigios from Italy. That also covers my beloved English wines, and other Eastern European regions such as from the oldest-wine producing country, Georgia.

English wine producer Nick in his vineyard at Albury Organic Wines in the Surrey Hills

Look out for the rise of award-winning English wines. English wine producer, Albury Organic, in the Surrey Hills.  

New World wines are those grassy and zesty Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, deep, rich and buttery Australian Chardonnays and smokey Shiraz (or Syrah) and crisp South African Chenin Blancs. Increasingly, South American wines are earning their keep on wine lists too; look out for Argentinian Malbecs and Chilean Carménères.

My advice? Be adventurous and go for a region or grape variety that you’ve never heard of (especially if you’re ordering just a glass!). If it’s on the list, it’s likely worth the mention.

4. Does it matter how the wine list is ordered?

Wines are generally listed by style. They start at lighter wines and move onto the fuller bodied. The ‘body’ describes how heavy a wine feels on the palate. Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc will be listed before a heavier, richer oaked Chardonnay, for example.

Light-bodied reds, produced from thin-skinned grapes are a great place to start if you’re looking for something closer to a white. Look for red Pinot Noir or Gamay – the grape which is used to make Beaujolais. These reds are often served slightly chilled too. The Marksman Pub in east London has a great wine list that separates its chilled ‘Light Reds’ from the heavier bodied ‘Reds’.

5. Can’t decide between red and white? Meet in the middle

It’s a common misconception that rosé is just a frivolous ‘summer juice’. There are some seriously great ones out there.

rose wine

My advice, though, is to try orange. Also known as amber or skin-contact wines, these are wines produced from white grapes that are produced in the same way a red wine would be. The skins and stems are fermented with the juice (known as whole bunch fermentation), giving the finished wine more body and mouth-feel than a traditional white. Just be aware that some orange wines are not filtered so they may be cloudy. Ask the waiter about the wine before you give it a go.  

6. Go natural

Increasingly, the wine world is aligning itself closer with the world of food. Look out for words such as ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’. Just as we like our veg this way, grapes are fantastic when grown this way too, meaning natural methods to control pests, natural manure in the vineyards and following the moons cycles. ‘Natural’ and ‘low intervention’ wines are made with minimal interaction from field to bottle, meaning wild yeasts, wild ferments and less filtering. 

Natural, organic, biodynamic? What do all these new wine labels mean?

7. When in doubt, choose house

The house wine is a direct reflection of the restaurant or bar, so if you’re eating the food, I would be confident about drinking the wine, too. 

8. Always taste! And don’t feel obliged to buy

Ask for a taste; especially for wines sold by the glass…and say no if it isn’t your thing. In my experience, sommeliers love to be asked their advice so don’t shy away from this too.

Hide restaurant in Mayfair, launched by the founders of Hedonism wines, has a huge wine selection, offering all of Hedonism wines as well as a great by-the-glass list.

9. Bring Your Own

I love a good BYOB. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring your favourite wine without having to worry about the wine list. Find out whether the restaurant has a corkage cost.

10. Take your time

Take as long as you need; there’s nothing worse than feeling pressured into buying a wine you’re not sure about.

If you enjoyed these wine tips, get in touch and let us know which wines you chose? Staying in? Get delicious wines from some of the best producers delivered direct to your door via farmdrop.com.

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