If you’re at a restaurant, and you’re not too sure what to order, or what will pair best with your meal, a good sommelier is nothing short of a godsend.
Making the wrong choice can spoil any meal, but with a bit of helpful information, you can select a wine which will help make your night a memorable one, and which might introduce you to something completely new.
If you’re not feeling confident about speaking up about your doubts regarding the bottles available, just remember; sommeliers really like wine.
They like drinking it, they like talking about it, and they’re probably very proud of the selections they made for the wine list. So don’t be shy - get chatting, and uncover something wonderful. Chances are, your somm is bored and itching to talk about the thing they’re passionate about the most, so give them the chance and you’ll both end up happier.
If you want to make the most of your sommelier’s talents and knowledge, then here are five questions and formulas to stick with.
I’ve also thrown in three questions you should probably avoid if you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot!
1. “I’ve heard some great things about (BLANK). What bottle should I try?”
This is a great starter for many reasons. It lets your sommelier know that you’re up for something new, and are curious about trying something you haven’t tasted before - whether the ‘blank’ in this case is a wine region, a particular winery or a wine style. Even if they don’t have something from the exact region or winery you’re referring to, they’ll know a wine that will have some connection to it.
2. “What on the list are you excited about at the moment?”
Your sommelier will have tasted hundreds, if not thousands of wines. Chances are they’re an individual with pretty damn fine taste, and whatever is floating their boat this month is likely to be spectacular. Asking them for their personal preference is a fairly surefire way of getting something you’ll find memorable, too.
3. “I’ve ordered fish, but I fancy a red wine. What do you suggest?”
Any sort of question where you set some parameters is going to be appreciated. In this case, the customer is asking for something quite specific and against the so-called rules of wine and food pairing, and the sommelier can steer them towards a light bodied red that won’t overpower the flavours of their dish.
4. “What’s your favourite bottle for less than…?”
Price boundaries are also going to be beneficial. While your sommelier will have tasted everything on their wine list, in their real lives, they probably don’t spend all their time drinking very expensive wines, and will be able to point you towards a great bargain.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting yourself a budget - nobody enjoys themselves while they’re worrying about spending too much money!
5. I really like (BLANK) - do you have anything similar?
Mentioning a specific wine, particular wine style or even a really broad category, for example Australian Shiraz, is better than reeling off a vague list of adjectives. Descriptive language can be really unhelpful when trying to identify what you like; your idea of ‘dry’ or ‘smooth’, for example, might be quite different from that of your sommelier.
1. “Are you a certified sommelier?”
This is both a stupid question, and a rude one. There are some highly sought-after certifications out there - for example, through the Court of Master Sommeliers - but if your sommelier doesn’t have the paperwork, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re incompetent.
The best way to become a great sommelier with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine is through working in a busy, demanding restaurant.
2. “Isn’t (YEAR) a bad vintage?”
Great producers manage to produce great wines, no matter what the weather was like on any particular year. Centuries of expertise and an intimate knowledge of their fruit and land take care of that. When it comes to fine wine, there aren’t really ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vintages - some might be better suited to ageing, some might be more classical in their character… but this sort of question is just going to make you look ignorant.
3. “Is this wine good?”
If the wine is on the restaurant’s wine list, it would have been the sommelier who put it there. Asking if a wine is any good or not is pretty dumb for three reasons: firstly, wine quality is - to a certain extent - subjective. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and all that.
Secondly, that wine might be brilliant if drunk alongside the chicken dish, but pretty weak if paired with the curried goat. Thirdly, sommeliers don’t go looking for bad wines to sneak onto wine lists, in order to make fun of unsuspecting customers. Obviously.
So the next time you dine, don't be afraid to speak up. You don't want to spoil your meal just because of a poorly chosen wine, do you? With the right questions at hand, your somm can surely help make your night a memorable one!
For the love of delicious wines, try our wine palate quiz below and we'll tell you the three wines that will match your taste!