We have all been there, sat at a table with friends and family we are eager to talk to and then, BOOM - a wine list that could easily have been written by Tolstoy lands on the table in front of you. When opened this treatise seems to swallow our head whole and cuts you off from the hub-bub and conviviality of the table.
Keep calm. With a few simple steps you can conquer the wine list.
1. Pitch perfect
There is certainly a wine (perhaps more than one) for every occasion. Just as buying the right property is about location, location, location, picking the right wine for your party is all about occasion, occasion, occasion. So, before breaking a bead of sweat opening the wine list, reflect on the time of day, style of restaurant, whether its a meal for work or pleasure, what the mood is of your party.
The key is to start light, and increase the intensity of the wine as you progress from appetizers through the meal. Plumping straight for a full-bodied, attention grabbing cabernet sauvignon could make the whole meal feel heavy, and have guests ready for a nap before the main course is served. If you're just getting started and the sun is not quite down, you're best to pick a playful wine that is light and fruity. Great options for easing everyone in would either be something sparkling, such as a cava. I love the Raventos i-Blancs, which has great acid structure and a wonderful minerality that readies your palate perfectly for food. Or perhaps a Provencal-style rose, that is dominated by grenache, such as Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Rosé which has bright acidity, showing lemony citrus notes over the top of soft tropical fruit, with a good edge of saline minerality.
On the other hand, if you've arrived at dinner having enjoyed an aperitif of two at the bar, then your party may be ready for a wine to settle down and peruse the menu with. A light and earthy wine such as a young pinot noir, garnacha or gamay would be a perfectly timed choice to bringing some complexity without too much density.
From here, the choice is really between something brooding and earthy, or big and fruity. Both styles offer substantial wines that can stand up to dishes that are rich in protein and fats. The brooding yet earthy crowd generally include wines such as Chianti, Brunello de Montalcino (both Sangiovese); red bordeaux; or red Roja (tempranillo). If you're favouring a fruit-forward crowd-pleaser then a cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel are great options, as is a Scillian Nero d'Avola or a syrah / shiraz (more on the sryah / shiraz question coming soon).
2. Finding your way
Each wine list is going to be organised in a particular way. Generally, wines will be divided first by colour to red, white, rose, and then by grape i.e. chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot and so on. Finally, the list is likely to be organised by distinct regions or countries.
Where wine lists are arranged using both categories of place and grape, it becomes much easier to consider the options that are likely to work best for your party. This helps overcome any confusion that may be caused by they way old world wines (Europe) and new world wines (everything outside of Europe) are labelled. Old world wines are labelled by their location and New World Wines by the grape. A wine list that reflects both will give you options for the sauvignon blanc you are pining for, from Sancerre in the Loire, to Central Otago in New Zealand.
3. Dollars and cents
Never feel obliged to plump for a bottle because it is more, and certainly don't ignore the least expensive wines. A sommelier isn't going to throw a wine on the list and not care as to whether it is a quality wine, just the same as a chef isn't going to have a dish on the menu that doesn't reflect the quality of the restaurant.
Each wine on a list is an investment for the restaurant. Getting wine into a restaurant is highly competitive and being on the list is a public statement of a relationship between a restaurant and a producer. If the least expensive wine on the list sounds like it will suit the vibe of your party simply order and enjoy.
When it comes to price, it is better to order by the bottle than by the glass. If you don't happen to finish a bottle during your meal, you can always take it with you, but it really is better value for money than drinking by the glass.
Finally, if the distraction of choosing a wine f is simply interfering with your evening out, use the resource that is the sommelier.
The sommelier will know the wine list and the restaurant's food backwards and sideways. More than that, the sommelier will be able understand the wines you enjoy and make (appropriately priced) recommendations that will delight and surprise you, and your party.