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How To Decode A Wine List Like A Pro

5 min read

Reading a wine list can be sometimes intimidating. While it’s clear that ordering a bottle can be a much better deal than by-the-glass options, the stress of scanning through a menu, talking with a sommelier, and tasting the wine can be enough to make you feel out of your depth and order a beer instead. But with a little know-how, it can be fun. 

How? You can either take advantage of your free time at home and brush up your skills attending a wine class online or take note of our tips and get ready for the next time you go to a restaurant. 

Tackling the wine list

It’s never a bad idea to let yourself be guided by intuition and inspiration. However, if you are a bit like us, most of the time you will cast your eyes over a list, match a suitable price with a region or style your are familiar with and end it there. If you want to choose wine like a pro, it’s time to go beyond your usual comfort zone.

Here are a few basic points of knowledge from the Italian sommelier and wine expert, Roberta Fantone, to help gentlewomen choose their wines confidently.

First of all, don’t feel rushed. Don’t choose the first thing you see, otherwise, you might miss a gem hiding on the back page. If possible, have a look a the list before you sit down for dinner, think of how much you want to spend, and then relax. 

Choosing a good wine is nothing to do with the floral notes and full-bodied aromas a wine may possess. It’s simply a case of your preference: all you really need to know is what grape or region you like to drink – Roberta explains-. But instead of picking a famous region, go for a nearby one, the more unfashionable, the better. In fact, neighbouring areas often produce wines from similar grapes at a fraction of the price (for example, instead of Bordeaux, try a red from neighbouring Bergerac). If you look hard enough within any region you will find lesser-known wines from producers that might not have the same appeal as the biggest names, but will more often than not be of equal quality and of greater value. 

Wine list structure

The information on the wine list may seem basic (Year/Vintage, Grape, Producer, Region/Country, Price) but actually, it can tell you all you need to know. Wine lists are often divided into sections, which can then be organised in a number of different ways: by style, varietal, origin or winemaker. Wines that are available by the glass or by the bottle may be spread throughout the list. Sometimes, a restaurant may keep a unique list of “reserve” or special bottles.

Wine lists can also be arranged in a “progressive style”: a menu may mirror a tasting order, such as starting with lighter intensity, sweet and slightly-sweet wines, then progresses to off-dry, delicate wines, followed by drier whites with more intensity. A wine list might also include tasting notes (peppery, smooth etc.) or highlight if a wine is organic or suitable for vegans.

Think locally

Wine culture and culinary heritage tend to have a symbiotic relationship, so it’ll help to think in terms of regional origins. To navigate a wine list like a professional, become specific with your geographical knowledge. So, if a dish is on the Mediterranean side, you might choose a wine from Sicily or Puglia. 

Food pairing

To enjoy your meal and wine to their full potential you should also consider some important characteristics of your drink such as strength (bold wines with hearty meals), richness, tannins (high tannins leave your mouth dry), acidity (balance with your meal) and the tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter). 

Mind the markup

Restaurant wine prices and their markups have an inverse relationship, so the cheaper the wine, the higher the price markup, and vice-versa. There is one exception to this rule—the second-cheapest bottle on the menu. As a general principle, restaurants know that they can get away with charging a premium for the sorts of “basic” wines toward which the masses will order almost automatically. 

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Sniff before you sip

When in doubt, ask a sommelier. Any good, reputable one will be the in-house expert not only on wine but more importantly on his or her own wine list. However, once you’ve selected a bottle, don’t forget to sniff the wine well before tasting it. Because if it smells flat, and a bit like wet cardboard, then it’s ‘corked’ and you are entitled to a second bottle.

A wine education

If you still feel a bit unconfident browsing a wine list and you really want to go beyond a couple of labels, why not to attend an online course? It’s never too late to become a wine connoisseur. These classes are the perfect entry point to the world of wine and you will be able to impress your friends (and yourself) for sure next time you go to a restaurant. 

Here are some of our favourite.

Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) – Online Learning

Learn about wines through a 4-week online study programme that is flexible to work around your existing commitments. The Level 1 Award in Wines Online covers the same syllabus as the classroom course but through a supported and interactive Online Classroom which allows you to study alongside your peers under the guidance of a dedicated educator. You will learn how to taste wine using a systematic approach and be able to identify the main styles of wine. You’ll also learn to apply these to your own food and wine choices.

As you work through the course you will be asked to share your learning experience with the rest of the course group, by sharing your tasting notes. Tasting is an essential part of studying for this course, and you will need to taste a minimum of 6 wines (not provided, but you will be given guidance on the styles to taste). Please note that the exam is completed in person and not online.

Online Wine School of Napa Valley Wine Academy 

It offers various beginner, intermediate and advanced level certification courses. The Wine 101 Foundation Online course provides you with a comprehensive introduction to wine. Certified Sommeliers and Wine Educators will share their experience to help you gain more in-depth knowledge of all aspects of wine. Throughout this course, you will come to understand why a wine tastes the way it does as you learn about how the major grape varieties, wine regions, and winemaking processes shape a wine’s character. And, maybe most importantly, you will be given the tools to become a better wine taster and learn how to pair wine with food more effortlessly.  

West London Wine School 

It offers live, online-based wine tastings and courses hosted LIVE at a fixed time. Anyone who registers to attend a specific online virtual tasting or course will receive access details for the tasting they have booked onto. All tasting sessions will be recorded, so if registered attendees are unable to attend a tasting session unexpectedly, you will be able to access the recording of that tasting when convenient. Upon registering for a virtual tasting or course, you will also receive additional information about and a link to purchase a corresponding tasting case should you also want to receive a case of corresponding wines to enjoy at home. Each individual tasting session will be 30 – 60 minutes in length and 2-3 wines will be reviewed and tasted during each session from the supplemental tasting case available for purchase.

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