Choosing wine off the wine list at a swanky restaurant can be nerve-racking. So many wines to choose from, all at different prices and from different regions of different countries. Then there’s the pressure of selecting a wine to complement the food itself. And you don’t want to look as though you don’t know the things you don’t know!

We’ve all chosen a wine from the wine list simply because we’re familiar with the grape variety. However the important thing when ordering wine at a restaurant is make sure it complements the food ordered. Choosing wine for this reason is a different to grabbing “2 for £15” at Waitrose on the way home from work on a Friday with the sole intention of it complementing your Kettle Chips.

It’s no wonder that ordering wine in a quality restaurant can feel like attempting an exam question. I know – I have been there.

So how can you order a good bottle of wine that ticks all the boxes and impresses your co-diners?

It’s All In The Preparation

Once you know you’ll be visiting a particular restaurant, peruse their menu and wine list online and choose your options beforehand (if you have the time). Some people would rather not as they think choosing at the restaurant is part of the dining experience, but for me, it is a must. This also allows me gauge what I’ll be spending on the overall meal too.

Choosing The Wine

This is the most important part, obviously!

Choose your main course and then do a internet search for types of wines that go best with that particular food. For example, I like sea bass. A search tells me that most white wines go well with fish so I’ll peruse the wine list for white wines within my budget, and then make my final choice.

No Time To Search?

Perhaps you are going for an impromptu meal with clients or your boss after work and you’re unable to look at the menu and wine list beforehand. You want to impress and avoid looking like a complete wine novice. So how do you do it

1. Ask For Advice

Don’t be afraid to ask the waiter (or sommelier if available) what their choice would be. You could mention a style of wine such as ‘I really like light and crisp whites. What would you recommend?’ Or ‘I love Malbec but would like to try something new with a similar style.’

Explain what you’re planning to order, and ask their opinion based on that. Giving the waiter or sommelier a feel for what you’re looking for will take the pressure off and you’ll be recommended a wine you’ll enjoy and one that complements your food. You’ll also learn for next time.

2. Don’t Choose The Second Cheapest Bottle On The List

The bottle of wine with the highest mark-up yet the cheapest for a restaurant to buy, is often the second cheapest bottle on the wine list. Restaurants know most people avoid ordering the cheapest offering for fear of appearing tight, but will opt for a bottle at the next price up. You’d be better off ordering the cheapest on the list as it’s likely to be better quality.

3. Bottle Or Glass?

Most restaurants charge huge markups on wine, primarily to offset food costs. It’s normally better value to buy a bottle rather than by the glass. You can look at a site like Wine Searcher to find the current retail price for a particular wine (and you can also read the reviews). Remember there is nothing wrong in ordering a glass of prosecco whilst looking through the wine list and checking it against Wine Searcher on your smart phone – and it may take the edge off the nerves.

There are occasions where paying the additional markup for individual glasses of wine is worth it. You’ll be able to try different wines over the course of the meal and pair each glass perfectly with each course. Moreover your dinner companions might have differing wine preferences, so the glass route will become a necessity.

4. Try Before You Buy

Ask the waiter or sommelier if you can try one, two or even three different wines before you buy the whole bottle. Whilst you’re trying, make sure you ask the waiter or sommelier what they’d recommend based on your food choice.

If All Else Fails…

Remember the points below:

  • Match the “weight” of the food to the body of the wine: e.g. red meats with full-bodied red wines
  • Match the flavours of the wine to your food: e.g chicken with light, crisp white wines
  • Match high-acidic wines with acidic foods: e.g Italian foods with tomatoes, lemon, etc paired with an acidic wine like Sauvignon Blanc
  • Match sweet wines with sweet foods: e.g puddings with muscat-based wines
  • Avoid drinking high-tannin wines (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, etc) with oily / salty foods. Oily foods are generally complemented with high-acid wines such as Sancerre or Vouvray.

Above all… enjoy yourself!


“A meal without wine is like a day without sun” – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin