As a wine writer, you might imagine that I enjoy being handed the wine list at restaurants, but, like many of you, I suspect, I usually groan inwardly. Finding a wine that everyone will enjoy and that goes with everything you’re eating is a tall order, and even if you spot one that you think will do the job, you still have to hope that everyone will be as willing as you are to pay for it.
Mind you, it’s often not a bad plan simply to order the cheapest wine on the list in any restaurant that cares about the quality of its wine offering, because it will probably be more than decent. I remember once going to the three Michelin-starred Michel Bras in France to find a local wine listed at just €15 (about £12.50), an object lesson to other restaurants that take themselves far too seriously.
My approach is simple: I almost always order something I don’t recognise or haven’t tried, because that’s one of the best ways of discovering new wines and getting the chance – which you don’t have at tastings – to try them with food. You can mitigate the risk by ordering by the glass, although many restaurants, including The Old Pharmacy in Bruton, Somerset, where I discovered the delicious L’Abrunet Negre in today’s pick, will give you a sip to try. And do get over the idea that sommeliers are out to fleece you: most will be delighted to make a recommendation, and it’s up to you to indicate what style of wine you like and what you can afford.
A lot of wines in the more interesting new restaurants these days are natural, so you also need to disabuse yourself of the idea that they’re all funky and weird. A few will be, sure, but most aren’t. As with food, it’s more a question of what your previous experience is. Wines such as the Chilean La Patagua in today’s pick might look unfamiliar because they’re unfiltered, but they are really delicious. Again, ask your server if you’re uncertain. If you haven’t tried natural wine before, just say so, and ask for something that’s not too scary. I really don’t think people have enough conversations about wine in restaurants – maybe because they’re nervous about appearing to lack knowledge – but being in a good restaurant or wine bar is a brilliant way to learn.
Finally, look out for older vintages on any list. Supermarkets by and large sell the most recent vintage, but good restaurants and pubs will often pick up odd bottles and bin ends for customers who they know will appreciate them. Be one of them.
Four bottles you might find on a wine list
Domaine d’Escausses Gaillac Cuvée des Drilles 2019 £10.90 Joseph Barnes Wines, 13.5%. Dryish, with a bitter cherry twist, this south-western French red is a classic bistro wine that would be as good with charcuterie as with steak frîtes.
Domaine de la Semellerie Chinon Rosé 2020 £11.99 Virgin Wines, 12.5%. Even at this time of year, you get the odd sunny day that cries out for a glass of rosé, and this light, pretty one from the Loire totally hits the spot.