6 Tips for Flawless Wine Etiquette

A knowledge of fine wine is an arbiter of taste and sophistication, an easy plot device in books and films to demonstrate the protagonist's urbane epicurean credentials. In reality its just as essential for impressing your lovers, clients, and any potential fathers-in-law. Perhaps like the right school, a respectable golf handicap, or conversational French, wine appreciation should not be a necessary social skill - but it is. Get it right and you can effortlessly engage a room full of strangers into easy conversation: Get it wrong and you look as gauche as the inexperienced hostess who seats a dinner guest next to his long-established mistress.

The lessons below are primarily concerned with wine whilst out and about; exploring the etiquette of ordering from an unfamiliar list or for guests whose tastes you have yet to establish; examining the delicate interaction with one's sommelier; and such tribulations as dealing with a suspected corked wine or inebriated companion or even worse one who does not drink at all.

Rule 1: A little preparation goes a long way.


Request the winelist in advance to have a few selections in mind prior to arrival at the restaurant – and importantly their page numbers. Ideally choose the wine in advance and have the bottle/s decanted on your table beforehand. Your guests will be awed by such organisational prowess and immediately grant you exclusive mining rights/happily agree to their daughter’s betrothal/invite you to bed without a murmur. Also given the preponderance of hard to spell wines from regions like Sauternes or Burgundy: - Chateaux Doisy Daene and Lafaurie-Peyraguey, or the vineyards of Auxey-Duresses and Pernand Vergelesses respectively, ensure you choose something you can pronounce.

Rule 2: Be inclusive.


Restaurants are usually where we dine with people we don't know; One of your guests might be a recovering alcoholic or vegan or like heavily-oaked Chardonnay or prefer fruit juice at breakfast so your wine choice becomes trickier. In such instances choose a Maconnais white - ideally a good Pouilly Fuisse (unfined) and for a red - a top but restrained Chateauneuf du Pape (ie less than 14% alcohol) or Super Tuscan Bordeaux blend. All have the benefit of impeccable old world credentials and elan to please patrician Europeans of retirement age but the ripe fruit and warm, hedonistic character that fun loud guests with a New World palate will enjoy. You can also convince the non-drinkers that this is not so much an alcoholic beverage as a noble exploration of ancient terroirs - a cultural journey and they must join in, despite the restrictions of their religion or parole terms.

Rule 3: Find an understanding restaurant.


If your guest is a bon viveur whose sole aim is to perish of a massive coronary before the grandchildren are old enough to understand what 'hopeless old drunk' means then you can rely on the discretion of the staff to avoid a scene. When my uncle heaved himself from his chair after a fine day's lunch and promptly measured his full length on the club's dining room floor, the maitre d's unruffled response to me as his colleagues hauled the old one out was: 'I assume you gentlemen will be taking coffee in the drawing room'.

Rule 4: Defer to the sommelier, confidently.


If you are eating somewhere that does not have a good sommelier, then find another restaurant. As a customer, confidence handling a winelist should be marked by diffidence: To presume to know more than your sommelier about his own list (whether you do or not) is to discourage dialogue. If you insist you are some kind of expert, you will never learn or try anything new and will end up drinking the same overpriced Puligny Montrachet with which you are already over-familiar. However, a few select phrases may help a novice earn respect. Saying ‘I really enjoy New World Rieslings’ (although you probably don’t) or ‘we have started getting in to Portuguese reds (when you haven’t) are ways of announcing that you are a sophisticated, well-travelled oenophile and thus worth impressing. This is a win-win situation as by palming off the burden of choice you minimise risk: If the wine chosen meets with approval you earn kudos; if it’s a stinker, you can sigh: ‘Its not what I would have chosen of course, but I wanted to give Andrea a chance to shine”.
(NB – for the benefit of Americans, “sommelier” is pronounced with an 'e' not an 'ar' as though referring to flights operating out of Mogadishu.)

Rule 5: Never taste the wine.


Instead pass the glass dismissively under your nostrils, without interrupting your anecdote, and give a quick nod of acquiescence if it’s good, i.e. smells vaguely fruity. Only if you actually smell something strange (sulphurous, eggy, fumey, excessively woody etc…) should you pause and consider raising the glass to your lips. If your concerns are not resolved by taste, then ask for the sommelier's opinion. If he suggests the wine is fine, reply 'just a touch dusty then/perhaps some residual CO2, but we'll see how it blows off in the decanter'. The older and more expensive the wine, the greater the chance the sommelier will present it at the table but then open it off-stage. This is to allow him to sample it to ensure its quality because a) older vintages betray more complex secondary and tertiary aromas that could be mistaken for faults by the less well-versed and b) because its a perk of the often thankless job. Those who complain about this well-established practice are as vulgar as those who spend several minutes examining, inhaling, swilling and gargling their wines when asked to taste.

Rule 6: Never take any rules about etiquette too seriously.


Or at least be aware of them only so, like not wearing brown in town or not being over-familiar with a dowager-countess of recent acquaintance, you can flout them with greater panache. They are guidelines for the nervous and one should rather be stylish in their contravention than slavish in adherence. If you enjoy Australian Shiraz with oysters or Muscadet with slow-braised oxtail, if you prefer your Meursault with ice cubes or rose slightly mulled, then order with confidence and a (fictional if need be) tale about how a prestigious winemaker in Bordeaux/Tuscany/Rioja told you this was the correct procedure. Also seemingly counter-intuitive wine decisions can lead to sublime new discoveries: Estuary oysters and Moscato di Trani (a rare dessert wine from Puglia); smoked bresaola with horseradish paired to an unctuous South Tyrolean Gewurztraminer being good examples I have encountered by ignoring convention. Finally never let your ignorance of the subject get in the way of a firmly held opinion. The wine world is particularly rife with bluffers and blaggers and our taste so subjective and under-articulated that the most ludicrous assertions often go undisputed if delivered authoritatively.

What to drink at…

The Polo/Races: Champagne, obviously. The whole spectacle will invariably be sponsored by one of the Grand Marques so it will be flowing. Its worth asking for Pimms only so you can say no when they fail to offer the infinitely superior Vodka Cup edition.
A cricket match: Whatever you can smuggle past security. The strict anti-alcohol rules at England's main grounds are not to discourage all day drinking but to ensure you are limited to the ghastly cheap lager and commercial grade wines offered at the bars.
The opera: Gin & tonic (if comic - will depress you sufficiently to find it less trite) or Gin Fizz (might keep you awake through Parsifal)
Point to Point/A Hunt: Whatever is in your hip-flask (ideally 50/50 port and brandy). Just to tide you over between sherries.
Weddings: Rather depends - if single then water. If attached - then more water. Weddings are occasions for drunken misdemeanours, but its best to be the sober one in the event of discovery.
A funeral: Black Velvet (Guinness and Champagne). The sombre colour is appropriate for the occasion but addition of bubbles awakens us to the possibility of rebirth and the probability of singing later.
Christmas parties: Anything but the mulled wine offered. Words have not been coined to describe a mulled wine hangover but it gives you a rough sense of the infinite.
A Bullfight: Plastic bottles half-filled with cola and half with enamel-stripping vino tinto. Otherwise whatever is left in your wineskin from the previous evening.
A charity ball: Do people still go to charity balls?
Art gallery launches: BYO - invariably only cheap drinks are served and given the unlikely chance of any return whatsoever on opening your curated space to a bunch of disinterested dipsomaniacs looking for free drinks in Mayfair, can you blame the gallerist?