Even as a professional in the wine trade, dissecting a restaurant’s wine list isn’t always an easy business. Given the overwhelming diversity of wines now available, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What I want to try and do here is give a few pointers, so that when you are next handed a wine list, it is a little less daunting.
Before you even step into a restaurant you can always check out their website to look at the menu and wine list in advance. If you know how much you are likely to drink and what sort of budget you are happy to spend on a particular bottle, you can have a shortlist of options and a quick google will take you to cellartracker.com or any number of other online resources. Almost irrespective of your level of wine knowledge you can always look brilliantly informed, if you have done your research in advance.
You are never going to be able to pair one white and one red perfectly with a range of starters and mains. However, you can do the next best thing, which is to order a “crowd pleaser” in your preferred price range: a wine that is incredibly versatile and should be good value on most lists.
White crowd pleasers could include a Mâcon, a St Véran or a Chablis, from Burgundy, a Sauvignon Blanc such as a Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley, a crisp Italian white such as a Vernaccia or a Pinot Bianco, or an Albariño from northern Spain. As long as the restaurant takes wine reasonably seriously, you can rest assured these will be well-made, refreshing wines, with good acidity and enough concentration of fruit to enliven the palate.
Moving on to reds, a Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, Bourgogne Rouge, Côtes du Rhône, Rioja, Chianti, or New Zealand Pinot Noir always offer good, if relatively straightforward quality. These should deliver plentiful appealing fruit flavours, a good balance of ripeness and freshness, ensuring you want to dive into a second glass as fast as possible.
Most restaurants will mark their cheaper wines up by potentially up to 300% on their cost price. However, as you go down the list, this % margin should decrease, giving you a better quality and value wine, albeit of course, a more expensive one.
When I talk about value, I am not necessarily talking about the cheaper wines. There will be bottles at all price points throughout a list that will hopefully offer exceptional value. The trick is to seek out those bottles and if the budget allows to buy and enjoy a canny and exciting purchase.
In my view, the sweet spot and often the best quality and value wines are in the middle of the list, somewhere from £40-70 per bottle. Home in on whites such as a Montagny 1er Cru, a St Aubin or Chablis 1er Cru. In red, a mid-tier Bordeaux if everyone is eating a rich meat dish, or a New Zealand Pinot Noir, Mercurey or Santenay, if you want something a bit lighter. Wines from the Rhône Valley are often extremely well-priced, so look out for a Gigondas or Châteauneuf du Pâpe.
If you are celebrating a special occasion or entertaining your best clients, make your way further down the list. Choose a Grand Cru Chablis, a Puligny or Chassagne Montrachet, a Meursault or a Grand Cru White Burgundy. On the red front, consider a Cru Classé Bordeaux, 1er Cru Red Burgundy, a wonderful Rioja Reserva or Ribera del Duero from Spain. Or head to Italy to choose a Chianti Classico Riserva or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. These wines are full-bodied and complex so will marry well with dishes that are also rich in flavour and are well-structured.
There are unquestionably some legendary food and wine combinations: roast chicken and Chassagne Montrachet, chargrilled steak and Argentinian Malbec, and Roquefort and Sauternes, to name a few. For more on this Fiona Beckett’s excellent matchingfoodandwine.com is a mine of information.
There is, however, no way you can try to match everything when you are choosing for a multitude of dishes. What is more practical is to think about the weight of the wine in your mouth and the impact it has on your palate i.e. will this wine overpower what we are eating, or will they sit comfortably together?
As a general rule, if you are eating something that is light and delicate, a goats cheese salad, a chicken dish, or a beautifully cooked piece of white fish, then also choose a wine that is light and delicate, whether white or red. Heavier poultry, fish or shellfish dishes, especially those with a creamy sauce, and meat dishes require a more full-bodied wine.
Any serious list will detail the vintage of the wines, and this should also influence your selection.
As a very general rule, all but the smartest white wines should be drunk in their youth, so today, you would expect to order a 2017, or 2018 vintage. There is nothing worse than a white which is clearly a little on the tired side, which has lost its acidity, is lacking freshness and has become flabby. The same goes if you are ordering a rosé. It must be as youthful as possible. The current vintage is 2018 and if you see a 2017 on the list, it has been hanging around for too long. You should opt for a white wine or ask the sommelier if they have a more recent vintage. Having said that, many more serious white wines can age and be drunk between 5-10 years old.
Many red wines are built to age. They have tannin and structure and, over time, will soften and develop more complex flavours. Particularly at the more expensive end of the list, seek out reds with a fair few years under their belt. These may well be the best on the list.
Ask for help!
If you can’t make up your mind, never be scared to ask the sommelier for their advice. Horror stories about supercilious French sommeliers are in general a thing of the past. The new generation of wine experts are both incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly approachable. It helps if you can give an indication of your taste – mention what you might normally order and see what the sommelier comes up with. A good sommelier’s recommendations can, in fact, enhance your dining experience substantially.
A little knowledge goes a long way
You don’t need to have a huge amount of wine knowledge to make sense of a wine list. However, it does help if you know what you like and can find it on a list. If you do want to take it further, I would wholeheartedly recommend doing a wine course. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) run excellent courses for all levels from beginner to advanced.