London Sommeliers Offer Tips on Scary Business of Picking Wines

Sommeliers can be the scariest people in restaurants. They may hover. They may know too much. You may not want to pay so much.

So what’s the best way to order good wine without emptying your pockets or having your expense claims bounce back? How should you choose if your expertise is limited?

“It’s best to be direct and say how much you want to spend,” says Emily O’Hare, 33, head sommelier at River Cafe in London. “I always feel confident about trusting sommeliers -- but I’m the same about hairdressers, which isn’t true for everybody.”

O’Hare and fellow sommeliers in the U.K. capital say they’re encouraging a trend that helps diners find great value and enjoy fine wine. It means going off-piste, avoiding big-name regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy and heading to other slopes of France -- and other parts of the world.

That can comfort people who fear being pushed up in price or aren’t sure which regions other than the obvious offer top quality.

“Sommeliers, of all the personnel in restaurants, are the most intense, the hoverers,” says Tom Harrow, 46, who sources wines and hosts events for clients via his company WineChap.

“They are the geeks,” Harrow says. “There’s nothing cool about wine. If you like it, you drink it. But there are people who categorize it, like collecting stamps.”

Asking your wine steward for a steer away from the most expensive wines is fair play, Harrow and sommeliers say.

Top Sommelier

“For value, I would look in Alsace and in the Loire Valley as well, and sometimes even in the New World,” says Kathrine Larsen, 31, a Dane who holds the title of U.K. Sommelier of the Year.

“I’d look maybe at Australia, Victoria, somewhere like Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula, smaller producers which are up and coming,” Larsen says. California wines from the Sonoma Valley are a possibility, “though that tends to be a bit more expensive.”

Larsen, who was head sommelier at Le Pont de la Tour, Orrery and Zuma before joining Top Selection Ltd. as the wine distributor’s business development manager, also likes easy-drinking Spanish whites from the Rueda region of Castile and Leon. For reds, it’s Galicia -- an “unusual” choice from an area known for whites -- or perhaps a trip to the Piedmont area of Italy.

For diners seeking good value, “there’s some really fun Spanish stuff,” O’Hare agrees. “Southern France, too: Languedoc Roussillon can come up with some really cool things.”

She recommends the “incredible white wines” from the Alto Adige region of northeast Italy. Some whites from Campania in the southern part of the country are “really interesting and offer some really good value and complexity and structure.”

French Regions

Harrow also likes Italy, particularly vintages from Puglia. And he’s high on Austria, calling it “the new Portugal” for reds. But he says you don’t have to escape France for good value.

“If you love white Burgundy and can’t afford Meursault, why not look at places like Brouilly or wines from the Macon, and similarly with reds?” he says.

Harrow also favors “the new seam of unoaked Australian chardonnays,” and both he and River Cafe’s O’Hare recommend German rieslings.

O’Hare used to organize women-only tastings because men were taking the lead in engaging the sommelier.

“There’s been a bit of a climate change,” she says. “Women seemed to be a bit timid in restaurants and that’s not so true anymore. There’s definitely an equality about payment, about ordering: He’s not ordering for her and she’s not sitting back and being quiet. There’s definitely a new kind of vibe.”

Wine Wolves

Larsen, who worked in Michelin-starred restaurants Ensemble and The Paul in Copenhagen, isn’t so sure.

“It’s funny thinking about it, but it’s really rare that I’ve seen women ordering wine in restaurants,” says Larsen. “Women usually just don’t go there. In 13 years of having worked in restaurants, I think the men usually take care of that.”

Either way, the key is to be honest.

“You need to be quite candid with sommeliers,” according to Harrow. “That’s important because the moment you start pretending you know more than you do, it’s not just like wolves surrounding a prey, but they won’t treat you with respect.”

What if a sommelier does embarrass you?

“It’s rubbish if anyone makes you feel like an idiot,” O’Hare says. “That’s a bad person, not a bad sommelier. You wouldn’t be intimidated by a grocer. It’s just wine.”

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)

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