The rules of a great wine list
The first glance at a wine list can be a flustering experience. Keeping thirst in line with budget while surfing a sea of grapes, names and years, many of them unknown, as dining companions tap urgently at the table and demand you just get on and order (or is this just my friends?), is never relaxing. This is why I am happy about the fact that restaurant wine lists are getting shorter even as by-the-glass choices get longer.
“Many places that might have had 500-600 bins are now down to 200-300,” says Chris Losh, editor of Imbibe magazine, who has just finished combing through more than 300 menus when I catch up with him to do the Wine List Chat at the Imbibe Wine List of the Year bash.
Lists are also growing more customer-friendly. The helpful fashion for “split-level lists” – prefacing a longer list with a single-page edit, is already well-established but Losh alerts me to another micro-trend: “The same wines, three ways.”
This isn’t like the Nineties trend for oblong plates with a sausage, a bit of crackling and a dollop of rillettes, say. It’s about indexing: arranging the same wines so they can be navigated, by country, style, or food match, giving different wines the chance to stand out.
“Because no one’s going to say, ‘I think I fancy a Cypriot red, where’s that on p106?’” says Losh.
One great example is the wine menu at Loves Restaurant in Birmingham, which arranges wine by country then by grape (so you can easily compare, say, a Defaix chablis, a Hamilton Russell chardonnay and the Cloudy Bay chardy) and finally by grouping (lower alcohol/wines influenced by women/half bottles).
“The idea had been rattling around in my head for a couple of years,” says Claire Love. “The idea is to go a step further, think about what my guests are concerned about when they look for a wine.”
Claire asks for my “discretion” with her full list. Apparently there are list thieves about: consultants who hoover up ideas from the hard labour and research that goes into compiling a good list and sell them on to their clients. I’m not surprised. A good list is both a magpie-like assemblage of unusual and well-known jewels, and a creative piece of craftsmanship. I dived into the café at Tate St Ives over the summer simply to have a peek behind the bar. Their list, put together by Hamish Anderson ( Imbibe’s overall 2014 winner for the Rex Whistler restaurant at Tate Britain), is short but it’s perfect, a wine haiku that cleverly juxtaposes the familiar and the unfamiliar, the very opposite of stale.
My restaurant wine list bugbears are many. I don’t like wrong vintages, missing vintages, missing producer names or poor spelling. If a list is short there must be a good reason to feature several wines from one winery, otherwise it feels a bit “couldn’t
Lot of bottle: a well thought out wine list can transform an entire dining experience. The really good ones can even fall prey to ‘list thieves’