Culture Food

A Noble Sediment

Do you have an unfounded fear of sommeliers? Allow us to calm your anxieties.

Even for a monumental wine bore like me, being presented with a strange wine list can be stressful. What should I order? Am I going to look cheap? And how the hell do you pronounce Pernand-Vergelesses? It’s funny because this doesn’t happen at a pub with wide selections of beer or whisky. Or indeed a lavish cheese counter.

People get upset about wine in a way they don’t with other drinks. I remember having a blazing row with the waitress at a now-closed Spanish restaurant in London when I asked for an ice bucket to chill a bottle of Rioja which was semi-mulled, having been stored near the kitchen. Red wine! Ice bucket! This man must be insane, she thought. At which point she called the manager. Things got so tense that I thought she was going to call the police or the men in white coats.

So that readers of The Fence might avoid such embarrassing incidents, I have put together a foolproof guide to ordering wine when out. Cut it out and keep it in your wallet so you can surreptitiously refer to it under the table.

Food in pubs has improved immeasurably in recent years, though often the wines haven’t kept up. Now, you could ask the staff for a recommendation, but this isn’t as straightforward as it may at first seem. I ate at a West Country pub with gastro pretensions a few years ago. You know the kind of place: ten local gins behind the bar, square plates, roast beef served vertically on a Yorkshire pudding MasterChef-style, but when I asked the young waitress about one of the bottles she replied, ‘Oooh, they don’t let us try the wines.’

In such places, it’s normally a risk to go with something that looks interesting or unusual, especially if you’re with company. But don’t do that. Remember: everyone likes Rioja or malbec or South African chardonnay. Just order those – you can’t go wrong. Or just have a bloody pint.

But what do you do if there’s no such reliable fallbacks on the menu? What if you’ve strayed into a natural wine bar? There’s an easy way to spot such places: mismatched wooden furniture, chalkboards and staff – male and female – sporting nose rings. Oh, and you won’t have heard of any of the wines on the list.

When ‘natural’ wines first started appearing ten years ago, I was generally positive about them. Wine made without added sugar, enzymes, yeast, minimal sulphur and oak influence, how could I resist? But such wines run the gamut from gorgeously pure to undrinkably rough. Widening the definition for what can acceptably be sold as wine means that it can sometimes be hard to tell if the wine is meant to actually taste like that.

I was told a story about an elderly American gentleman ordering wine in a restaurant. He took a sniff of the wine and sent the bottle back. The waiter told him that as a natural wine, it was meant to be like that. The usual argument ensued until, at his wit’s end, the American pointed to the back of the bottle where it said ‘imported by Kermit Lynch’ and said to the upstart waiter, ‘I’m Kermit Lynch and I’ve been drinking this wine since before you were born, and I say there’s something wrong with it.’ If only Kermit Lynch was always on hand at such times!

But even without Lynch’s help, there is a way to get a drinkable glass of wine out of even the most evangelical of natural wine wait staff. You may have encountered these specimens, with a messianic gleam in their eyes. Be on your guard: if they detect the slightest piece of interest in something different, they will try to sell you something made in an amphora by a young couple in Portugal who previously worked in digital marketing.

The trick I learned from visiting Terroirs near Charing Cross station (now sadly closed but its sister restaurant Soif in Battersea is still going strong) is to say, ‘That sounds fascinating, we might try that next time but for now imagine you’re ordering wine for your grandfather, what would he like?’ You may not appear quite so cool, but in no time at all you will have something worth drinking.

Now, this is all very well and good but what about if you have to deal with an actual sommelier? As you will know, a sommelier is a wine specialist; you’ll recognise them by the bunch of grapes on their lapel and unfeasibly tight trousers.

Traditionally, a sommelier’s job was to spot people with money and flatter the hell out of them so that they spend thousands of pounds on wine. But as with many professions over the years, there’s been a shift. Thanks to documentaries like Somm or books like Cork Dork, the sommeliers have become fashionable – and their opinions sought after. There’s talk of ‘rock star sommeliers’, some have even become famous. Don’t worry, they aren’t actually famous – except among about 200 people in London, but they think they are famous and that’s just as bad. If not worse. And as is the way these days, they’re not just recommending something nice to go with your steak, they’re dismantling the patriarchy through the medium of fine wine.

The other big change has been the arrival of something called ‘pairing’. This is the idea that there’s such a thing as a perfect fit between wine and food. Your waiter may try to sell you a glass to go with each dish. Always refuse this. You’ll probably not enjoy half the combinations, and your convivial meal will be continually interrupted. I have a sneaking suspicion that ‘pairing’ is an elaborate con designed to extract more money from the punter and maintain the sommelier’s status as the keeper of arcane knowledge.

And yet you mustn’t ignore their advice entirely, because they know where the treasure is buried. These are the wines which aren’t marked up drastically. Every restaurant, even ones with Michelin stars, should have a few of these scattered around. I remember accidentally booking the swanky Galvin La Chapelle with my wife rather than the cheaper bistro next door. I took a sharp intake of breath when the wine list arrived. The waiter, however, could not have been more solicitous and steered me towards a delicious and very reasonably priced Chinon.

The trick in such places is to make your sommelier aware that though you may not be rich, you nevertheless have impeccable taste. There’s one guaranteed way to do this whether it’s in a Michelin-starred restaurant or a trendy Peckham wine bar, and it’s via Austria. All sommeliers – every single one – get the horn for Austrian reds. Trust me, even the most supercilious somm will melt when they hear the word Blaufränkisch (an Austrian red grape). Remember that word, drop the name of a couple of producers and you will have a friend for life. After bonding over Austrian wines at the Wheatsheaf, a boutique hotel in Cotswolds, the sommelier gave us loads of wines to try. Other reliable sommelier-bait includes wine from the Jura or Swartland in South Africa, and anything made from Cabernet Franc or Cinsault.

But in my experience, the best way to get free wine is to bring Steven Spurrier (look him up) with you. I once had lunch with him at Noble Rot on Lamb’s Conduit Street – a place with a fabulous wine list but rather grand staff. As soon as they clocked who I was with, they were all over us. Sadly, you won’t be able to do this, as Spurrier died last year.

You can, of course, bypass the gatekeepers by doing a bit of homework. These days, before eating out, and this is going to mark me out as a bit of a nerd, I’ll study the wine list online, often for hours, comparing the restaurant prices with retail ones. Certain restaurants are famous for not marking up their wines lavishly, such as Andrew Edmunds in Soho, The Arches in Swiss Cottage or The Drapers Arms in Islington. At the latter I shared a lovely Chateau Poujeaux 2010 with a cognac importer (he was paying) for around what you would pay for it retail – if you could find it. Sometimes the most unprepossessing place will have something tasty if you know what you’re looking for. Côte, yes, the chain restaurant on every middle-class high street, has some excellent wines such including a particularly nice Chinon (what can I say, I really like Chinon).

If all these tips sound a bit too much like hard work then remember, in any restaurant worth visiting, the house wine should be good. At Brutto, Russell Norman’s new restaurant in Clerkenwell, they do a very tasty Venetian red by the half-litre carafe for £15, while at St Leonards in Shoreditch they offer Beaujolais from a keg. It’s very hard to get socially anxious over a wine that comes out of a tap.

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