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If you know how to approach it, even the heftiest wine list shouldn’t present too much of a challenge. Chris Losh explains how to fit the jigsaw together.
Even those of us with halfway decent wine knowledge dread being presented with a wine list the size of a phone book in a restaurant. Even if you are inclined to read the whole thing (and frankly, if that’s your idea of a good night out, the chances are you’ll be dining alone), by the time you reach the digestif section, the waiting staff will be clearing up around you.
Most wine lists are, by common consent, overly long, with restaurants often too happy to ram their pages with bottles that don’t need to be there. So, given this reality, below are five golden rules on how to ignore the superfluous wine-chaff and get straight to the heart of where the good stuff is hidden. And it’s not always where you might think!
‘This month’s specials’ is a good place to start. They can be a clearing house for wines that the team like, but are having trouble selling – but don’t let that put you off. If they’re prepared to put their cojones on the line and recommend the wines, then they should be good. They should also match with any seasonal food.
If you see oddball areas on a list, or areas with lots of depth and information, it proves that the sommelier is genuinely interested in them, and this probably means good wines as a result. As Christine Parkinson, group wine buyer for Hakkasan, puts it: ‘Look for the passion! If there’s a special selection, or a page that has comments or descriptions showing real excitement about the wines, then start there. Sommeliers taste loads of wines, so head for the ones they’re excited about.’
Any wines that come pre-recommended with a dish are a good bet, and usually the result of hours of tasting and testing. As China Tang’s head sommelier, Igor Sotric, says: ‘If you trust a chef with the tasting menu, you should trust the sommelier as well. If you’re not happy with the wine selection, you always have the option to change it.’ And it’s worth asking your waiter if they’re prepared to offer bottle-only wines by the glass, too.
List staples such as Chablis, Chianti, Rioja and Sancerre are the default choice of diners who don’t know much about wine – and they’re marked up accordingly. The further off the beaten track you go, the better the value for money. And bear in mind that if a restaurant has a selection of wines from Long Island, then they’re there because the sommelier believes in them, not because they’re an easy sell.
There are handy food-and-wine-matching apps that turn your smartphone into a pocket-sized sommelier. Wine Waiter (£1.49 from the iTunes app store) is probably the easiest to use. It gives broad recommendations at different price levels for dozens of classic dishes, easily taking the terror out of a large list.
The blue-chip wine regions, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy et al, are very expensive in restaurants. But you can get great wines without shattering the expense account ceiling. ‘Climb the ladder of
quality, but not all the way to the top,’ advises Parkinson. ‘A fifth growth will be way better than a supermarket Bordeaux, but at a semi-sensible price. For Burgundy, a good village wine from a
ripe vintage will be a cheaper buy than a grand cru, but with a similar style.
This feature was published in the spring 2012 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.