Latest Issue

Wine is a living thing

It needs to breathe, to evolve and gracefully to decline

By Barry Smith   March 2015

© Matthew Rogers

The first question you are asked in a restaurant is often: what would you like to drink? And with the mark-up practices in most restaurants, this can be the biggest investment decision of the evening; it’s important to choose wisely. I tend to look at the wine list first and choose the bottle before working out what to eat. As others have noted before me, you have to decide who’s the soloist and who’s the accompaniment.

What if you opt for the tasting menu: that carefully arranged parade of dishes displaying the virtuosity and dexterity of the chef? Here you can move from cold to hot, sweet to salty, crunchy to smooth; plate after plate where variety and contrast are the name of the game. The assortment of flavours constitutes the greatest challenge to the selection of a suitable bottle. Most restaurants offer a wine pairing option—the upside is that the they should have been meticulously chosen and you might discover wines you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. But with anything between 12 and 24 courses in some restaurants, you could be in for an awful lot of wine.

If you forego the wine pairing option it is still possible to find something that will work with all those dishes. It is often white wines that reveal their versatility here, managing to highlight a range of flavours from briney seafood and silky veloute, to umami-rich gels and foams. You can impress the sommelier by picking out a rich and unctuous Rhône with Roussanne and Marsanne grapes, or a dry Jurançon made from Gros and Petit Manseng. But by far the most versatile white is Gascony’s Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, made from Petit Manseng and Courbu: a wine that will stand up to pea purée and asparagus, foods that take the shine off most wines. By sticking to white wine you can always supplement your bottle with a glass of red for the particularly meaty plates, returning to the white for the lighter courses.

A bottle of white with a glass of a different colour is the best option for a standard dinner menu. A motley of wines by the glass seldom satisfies when not following the strict pairing logic of a tasting menu—particularly since some restaurants have decided to dispense with the knowledge of a sommelier when serving wines by the glass, installing instead an expensive Enomatic machine, which dispenses shots of wine from a stainless steel cabinet of trophy bottles. Arrayed with tubes inserted, the bottles look off-puttingly medical, and unlike an experienced sommelier the machine cannot tell you how the precious liquid in a good bottle is doing. A sommelier takes care of good bottles, using them wisely to offer customers a wine at its best. The Enomatic—unless the bottles are constantly checked and scrupulously maintained—does not.

It can be more satisfying to choose an interesting wine that develops over the course of the meal. Experience the subtle changes as it aerates and you will learn more about wine than a machine can teach you. Wine is a living thing. It needs to breathe, to evolve and gracefully to decline. Accepting this will put us back in touch with the process of growing, cultivating and maturing; something we lose sight of when we turn to gadgets that promise us a guaranteed hit and instant gratification. Give the wine its time and surrender to the course of its development. It’s natural, and you’ll be closer to the heart of the wine.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect