How to navigate a wine list like a pro

In today’s flourishing wine climate, more grape varieties and excellent wines have been made available. However, where there is choice there can be confusion and the world of wine can be overwhelming, intimidating and complex. Whilst we all can’t be sommelier’s trained to specialize in all aspects of wine, there is a method to appear trained so you can navigate a restaurants wine list like a pro. Lukasz Kolodziejczyk, head of fine wine at Cult Wines, has created a helpful guide with five tips to help you choose from any wine list with ease.

Lukasz Kolodziejczyk
Lukasz Kolodziejczyk, Head of Fine Wine at Cult Wines

1. Focus on the wines you know you like

Perhaps the simplest way to navigate a wine list is by focusing on the wines you know you like. Whilst most wine novices might know the basic differences between red, white and sparkling wine, a good starting point is to understand the most important grapes under each category. For example, if you know you prefer white wine try to understand and opt for different white grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. 

Ultimately, you don’t need to know if a wine is ‘balanced’ or ‘supple’, you just need to know that you’ll enjoy drinking it. Remember, you can always ask to taste the wine before you commit to a bottle. If you don’t like it, simply just say it is not your taste.


2. What grows together goes together

Wine culture and culinary heritage tend to have a symbiotic relationship, so it’ll help to think in terms of regional origins. However, choosing an Italian wine with an Italian-inspired meal can seem like the obvious choice rather than an expert decision. 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 alternatively, choose to pair a creamy pasta with a Soave. A little geographical knowledge can go a long way.

3. Understand that wine’s taste better with age

Typically, as vintages get older, the wine becomes more expensive. This is because as the wine is stored over time, it loses its tannins and acidity which are often unappealing in taste. Whilst it’s up to you how much cash you splash, if there’s only a modest price difference between two vintages it’s usually worth going for the slightly more expensive option.

Focus on wine regions that also overdeliver for their price. For example, if you like ripe, bold reds Chile and Argentina are worth considering, alongside Spanish reds like Rioja. German Riesling and Spatburgunder (a synonym for Pinot Noir in Germany) is also good too.


4. Don’t worry about the pronunciation

The pronunciations of dozens of wines can be intimidating and complex. Whilst there is the old ‘point and show’ method, it can make you look as if you are baffled and unknowledgeable about wine pronunciation. For a more finessed ordering experience, you can usually get away with naming the vintage, the winemaker and the grape. For example, instead of “Domaine Chanson Chablis Montee de Tonnerre 1er Cru 2012” try altering it to “The 2012 Chanson Chablis” for ease. If the sommelier needs clarification, they’ll ask for it.


5. The sommelier is there to help

A sommelier is a wine waiter who creates and updates the restaurant’s wine list, so who better to ask when navigating your way through. A sommelier’s job is to also recommend the best wine and food pairings to guests, so be assured that there is someone to assist you in your choices.

Don’t be afraid to ask sommeliers “what is this wine like” as it’s hard to know it all and sommeliers know that too. I love when a sommelier has the confidence to say “I don’t know but I will find out for you” because if you have a wine list with 300-400 bottles, it is impossible to know it all. Let me reassure you that often sommeliers are just as intimidated as you are.