Buying wine in a restaurant can be both an uplifting and a dispiriting experience. Uplifting because you are very likely to come across wonderful wines you just won’t find anywhere else, wines chosen specifically to suit the style and food of the chef, with a highly trained sommelier on hand to proffer genuine and useful advice.
Dispiriting because the savage mark ups charged by all too many greedy restaurateurs these days can put all but the most basic of wines out of our reach.
The usual formula is for the restaurant to multiply a wine’s original trade price by anything from between three to five, and the results can be eye-wateringly pricey and in many cases indefensible.
The restaurateur’s response is invariably that such mark ups help go towards the rent, the rates, the linen tablecloths, the fancy glasses, staff wages and so on, essential in these straightened times. Hmmm.
Sometimes you just feel ripped off. I recently visited a very well-known, Michelin-starred restaurant in London which prides itself on its wine list. The prices were exorbitant, but the selection fascinating. I discovered on ordering however that my first three choices from the list were ‘no longer available’. It fleetingly crossed my mind, rather uncharitably, that they never really had been available and were just listed to impress.
It just so happened I’d been at a tasting that afternoon and had a really rather interesting bottle with me and I asked whether I might drink it in exchange for a modest corkage charge. Of course, they said, and promptly charged me an outrageous £35 for the privilege. It rather put me off them.
On the other hand, the experience can be a delight. Dining at the wonderful Bellamy’s in London’s Bruton Place the other day, I was gently guided by Luigi, the Maitre d’, to a spectacular Crozes-Hermitage Blanc from Alain Graillot that matched my sautéed skate wing so perfectly that I couldn’t stop smiling all evening. Luigi’s advice was worth every penny of Bellamy’s famously modest mark ups.
And so, to help you get the most from a restaurant’s wine list, herewith ten opinionated dos and don’ts…
DO consider buying wines by the glass. Many restaurants now have decent and well kept selections by the glass often stored in a state of the art Enomatic machines. Yes, it usually works out pricier buying by the glass rather than the bottle, but it means everyone can have exactly what they want, in the quantity they want.
DON’T be shy of sending a faulty wine back. You’re not insulting the sommelier by doing so. He or she didn’t make the wine and it’s not his or her fault (unless it’s been stored really very badly). In any case, they will let the suppliers know and will be recompensed.
DO check what everyone else round the table is having. Not much point going for that bottle of California Zinfandel you fancy if the rest of your companions are eating grilled Dover sole and you don’t fancy buying by the glass.
DON’T be put off from ordering a particular wine because its name is seemingly unpronounceable, a Rudesheimer Kirchenpfad Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese for example. Simply point to it on the wine list and nod knowingly to the sommelier.
DO check that the vintage on the bottle matches that in the list. Many restaurants quite reasonably substitute certain wines with subsequent vintages. It doesn’t matter so much with everyday or even most New World wines, but you wouldn’t want to be given a 2007 claret in lieu of the listed and vastly superior 2006.
DON’T feel rushed. Take your time to get your bearings. The restaurant is unlikely to run out of stock before you order. Many lists now break down their wines into styles and regions and there should be enough detail to help you make an informed decision. If in doubt, ask the sommelier, that’s what he or she is there for.
DO be prepared to sample the wine when it arrives. Unless you’re being served a house wine or wine by the carafe, you’ll be given a tiny measure to taste. Take your time. Swirl the glass and give the wine a hearty sniff. Almost anything that could be wrong with a wine can be detected by looking at it (it should be clear and bright) and smelling it (it will smell musty or like sherry if anything is amiss). Then sip it to confirm all is okay.
DON’T be shy of sticking to the house wines. The finer the restaurant the finer (usually) the house wines which might have been imported directly from a trusted and reputable producer of many years’ standing. What you save with a bottle of house white at the beginning of a meal you can spend on a hearty glass of cognac at the end.
DO ensure that you’re happy with the wine’s temperature. Too warm and ask for it to be put in an ice bucket for ten minutes or so; too cold, ask for it to be put near a radiator. It’s your money.
DON’T be scared to experiment. Most wines go with most foods and part of the fun of dining out is to be bold and to discover new taste sensations.
Ten Top Restaurants for Wine Lovers
Bob Bob Ricard, 1 Upper James Street, London W1F 9DF
Tel: 0203 145 1000
Camp, kitsch and really rather wonderful, BBR has a brilliant wine list with cru classé clarets and prestige cuvée champagnes far cheaper than its West End rivals. Punters love the ‘press for champagne’ buttons at every table, too, and the brand new club room has been an instant hit.
The Jugged Hare, 49 Chiswell Street, London EC1Y 4SA
Tel: 020 7614 0134
In the heart of the City of London, a magnet for wine lovers and game lovers alike (its eponymous dish is worth the trip alone), with every one of its 50 or so wines available by the glass, 500ml carafe or bottle. Look out for the monthly wine specials and gourmet wine nights.
Hotel TerraVina, Woodlands, Netley Marsh, Southampton SO40 7GL
Tel: 023 8029 3784
This luxury boutique hotel in the New Forest – owned by Hotel du Vin co-founder, Gerard Basset, Master of Wine and former Best Sommelier in the World – is perfect for weekending wine lovers. The list is exceptional and nobody knows more about wine than Gerard who is never happier than when sharing his passion.
Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, 9 Fore Street, Evershot, Dorset DT2 0JR
Tel: 01935 482000
Thanks to the efforts of multi award-winning head sommelier, Eric Zweibel, a proud protégé of Gerard Basset, Summer Lodge boasts a fascinating and an extraordinarily diverse wine list. Eric’s Tuesday wine dinners and Thursday wine lunches, run in cahoots with head chef, Steven Titman, are hugely popular.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
Tel: 01628 580333
The Fat Duck gets no shortage of plaudits for its exotic food (salmon poached in liquorice anyone?) and its wine list is no less quirky with wines from Turkey, Croatia, Switzerland, Uruguay and Greece rubbing shoulders with better-known regions. And in Loic Avril, the Fat Duck boasts the current UK Young Sommelier of the Year.
The Ubiquitous Chip, 12 Ashton Lane, Glasgow G12 8SJ
Tel: 0141 334 5007
With over 300 wines on their list, modest mark ups, wines by the glass in punter-friendly 125ml, 175ml and 250ml sizes, £20 per head wine club evenings and special three-wine introductory selections, it’s clear the folk here not only love their wines but they also love their customers.
Sir Charles Napier, Sprigg’s Alley, Chinnor, Oxon OX39 4BX
Tel: 01494 483011
There’s a great wine list here with very benign mark ups. Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhône are particularly well represented but the New World gets a good look in too. Best of all, there are dozens of wines in half bottles and magnums and almost 30 different sweet wines.
The Evesham Hotel, Coopers Lane, Evesham, Worcs WR11 1DA
Tel: 01386 765566
One of my absolute favourite hotels, bonkers spot though it is. Owner, John Jenkinson, is gloriously, charmingly eccentric and decided years ago never to stock French or German wines. You will find wines from the likes of Spain, Chile, New Zealand, of course, but also Utah, Sweden, Holland and Ireland, with over 150 different grape varieties represented.
The Wine Library, 43 Trinity Square, London EC3N 4DJ
Tel: 020 7481 0415
I used to spend far more time in this Tower Hill basement than was good for me, so beguiling a spot is it. You choose a wine from the shelves, pay the retail price plus a modest corkage and drink it alongside simple plates of ham, pâté and cheese. An afternoon can slip by almost unnoticed.
Galvin Brasserie de Luxe, The Caledonian Hotel, Rutland Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB
Tel: 0131 222 8988
I’ve long adored the Galvin brothers’ place in London’s Baker Street and this is a worthy stablemate. The commendably concise list is packed with wines from little-known regions and unexpected grape varieties and blends and there’s not a dud among them. Excellent and well-priced own-label wines from top producers too.