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Interesting wine choices help to make a meal more exciting and the perfect wine match can be a real joy. Chris Losh considers what it takes to make a winning wine list.
We have, I’m guessing, all been there: sitting down and happily perusing the food menu, only for the arrival of the wine list to put an almighty dampener on things. It could be anything from the appearance of a tome the size of a phone book with no helpful tasting notes to a lone sheet of dog-eared paper. Or even a list that ticks all the boxes but is just a bit boring. There are almost as many reasons for carte de vin contumely as there are for restaurant crimes.
But rather than this turning into a giant whinge-fest, let’s turn the whole thing round and have a think about what makes a great wine list. Well most obviously it needs to have decent wines on it. This, though, is more complicated than you might think – for several reasons. Firstly wine is so vintage-sensitive, particularly in Europe, that bottles can vary significantly from one year to the next. A good restaurant will take account of this and update its offering regularly, shifting the emphasis away from regions that suffered and stocking more wines from places that the weather was kind to.
Even that’s only half the story, though. Some of the world’s greatest wine regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, even Chablis and Sancerre – regularly make wines that are simply not ready to drink when they’re released, particularly at the upper end. A good wine list should not be stuffed with offerings from these regions that are young and tough, but wines that are drinkable now and show real personality. 2005 Bordeaux, for instance, is a terrific vintage, but beyond the basic Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur wines there’s unlikely to be much gained from drinking any examples now.
Vintage is also key when you’re looking at a list stuffed with famous names. These ‘power lists’ aren’t always inherently great. Just as top wines take a few years to mature, so there’s also no point in offering wines from great estates but hideous vintages. I don’t know anyone who’s ever gone a bundle on, say, 1993 Cheval Blanc, but you will still find it on restaurant lists – and it won’t be cheap.
In any case, it’s not all about trophies. Often the real skill of a sommelier lies in being able to hunt out one-off gems: a brilliant year in a less well-known wine region; a fantastic producer who makes great wine every year no matter what; a grape or area that is off most people’s radar but totally over-delivers for the money.
The thing about finds like this is that they probably won’t leap out at the non-expert, which brings us to another key factor for a great wine list: presentation. This is a real issue. Simply listing 100 wines by country tells the purchaser nothing about what they are actually like. There are, let’s not forget, hundreds of wine producing regions and tens of thousands of producers. Even wine experts can’t hope to know what, say, the 2007 vintage was like in every area or who the big names are to look out for in the Pic St-Loup.
A good wine list should help you to narrow the search down. It can do this via a basic tasting note or by giving food recommendations. The best lists can bring the wines or the vintage alive by giving back-stories. If constructing a wine cellar is like building a product, then how the list is presented is the instruction manual. Unimaginative presentation is one of the reasons that so many diners default to Rioja or Chablis: with nothing else to hang onto, you revert to the tried and tested.
The final element of deciding what makes a good wine list is the ‘horses for courses’ test. A noodle bar, for instance, might want six wines, all under £20 – but that’s unlikely to go down well with customers at The Ivy.
Likewise, the kind of wines you’d expect to see on a list at the steak-filled Gaucho won’t appear in big numbers at a seafood restaurant like Scott’s. French cooking or Chinese, traditional or super-whizzy molecular cuisine – the type of restaurant and the type of food should determine the wines on the list.
So yes, putting a list together is difficult. But in the same way that we all know failures when we see them, so good lists can stand out too, which is something really worth celebrating.