You order a bottle of wine in a restaurant but it’s not really up to scratch. What do you do? When do you send it back and when do you accept a lower grade wine? Read on!

A customer asked me what the deal is with ordering and sending back wine in a restaurant. I have to admit: even as a wine expert, I get nervous tasting wine in these situations. Because how do you know when to send back an almost full bottle? And when should you just accept that you made a bad choice, because the wine is fine, just not exactly to your tastes?

Top three wine issues

1. Cork

No, this doesn’t mean there are pieces of cork floating in your glass, it’s actually a contamination of the wine by TCA (trichloroanisole). This causes the wine to smell or taste like mould, wet cardboard, or in other words: just plain stale. This problem is especially evident when you haven’t yet swirled the wine in your glass.

2. Too much sulfite

If the wine smells like a lit match or a rotten egg, there’s too much sulfite and you can definitely send it back.

3. Oxidisation

If the wine is too old or has had too much contact with air during production, the wine can oxidise. The same thing happens when iron rusts.

White wine becomes brownish or a deep yellow colour and red wine turns light brown, losing its freshness. So make sure to drink white wine as young as possible, unless it happens to be one of the few that can be aged (e.g. good Burgundies). I’m quite sensitive to the taste of oxidisation so if the wine is served by glass and the bottle has been open for too long, I’ll send the glass back.

So, it is possible to identify these problems even if you have never tried that specific wine before. It also differs from one person to the next which problem you can pick more easily. Some people are more sensitive to oxidisation, others to cork taint.

So I’m stuck with this bad wine?

If it’s just a matter of not liking the taste, it’s unfortunately simply a risk you take. But it’s always worthwhile having a chat with the service staff. Perhaps the wine can be sold by the glass to other patrons and you can pick another wine. And if the wine arrives too warm or too cold, you can definitely mention this to the staff. A warm wine can be quickly cooled, and a cold wine can be left on the table to come to the right temperature.