Wine writer, author and broadcaster Susy Atkins provides her advice on building a winning wine list for any restaurant.
Imagine, if you will, a restaurant with wonderful food and a great setting. It’s got everything going for it, including well-trained and efficient staff. Everything, that is, except a decent wine list. There’s a dull, uninspiring selection of bottles, presented to diners on a wipe-clean laminated folder with no information on producers or styles and a complete lack of tasting notes. Only the ‘house’ red and white are offered by the glass. And nothing much suits the food on offer. Too many rich reds and oaky whites, many from old-fashioned wine regions, pervade the list, and mark-ups look alarmingly high.
Let’s hope we’ve time-travelled back 20 years because this was a typical set-up back in the `80s. Today the wine is, of course, where many places make their money, and by failing to get the list right, the owner would miss out big time. There really were plenty of restaurants like this, particularly in Britain’s rural outposts. But times have changed, and wine lists everywhere are rapidly coming up to speed. As they should, because this country`s wine trade is the most dynamic and varied in the world. With so many appealing and good-value labels now available in the UK, restaurateurs are newly inspired to freshen up the offer.
Every wine list is - or should be - individual, even unique. But some basic rules can be applied to them all. So, for those who feel their wine list still needs a 21st century shake-up, here are the top 10 ways to win with wine. Take a look at each one and make sure you can tick every box...
1. Marry the wines to the style of the restaurant:
Not as simple as it looks. Yes, put more aromatic dry whites and roses with a seafood menu, and more rich reds in a steakhouse, naturally, but pay attention to more subtle issues, such as listing inexpensive, easy-drinking wines like French vin de pays with casual bistro food, or eclectic, highly modern styles such as New Zealand Gewurztraminer and Austrian Gruner Veltliner with fashionable, fresh, Asian-fusion dishes. Got a classic, retro feel? Then go for good examples of Chianti, Muscadet, German Riesling. By the sea, where people come to party and celebrate? Loads of fizz for you, then. The wine, the place and the food must all work well together, in every sense.
2. Crunching down on prices:
The lower end of the wine list has never been so crucial. Yes, a few cult labels continue to sell at high prices, but right now many restaurants are seeing demand for expensive wine drop off. That doesn’t mean a rush to bog-standard cheapies like Lieb and Lambrusco, but a sensible selection from good-value wine regions like Sicily, southern France, Spain. Or, given the current poor exchange rate on the Euro, South Africa and Argentina, perhaps. Places which consistently put out ripe, distinctive, food-friendly wines at attractive prices, instead of top-notch clarets, burgundies and super-Tuscans. Then there’s .
Mark-up on wine, we all know, is a contentious issue. Watch out - savvy consumers (and there are lots around today) are only too quick to spot an unrealistic price hike, especially on a famous or big-brand label that they regularly see on the high street. It simply doesn’t pay to push things up too much, even for cult labels and fancy fine wines. In the credit crunch, it is more important than ever to appear to offer good value. Many restaurants work on making somewhere between 65 and 75 per cent gross profit on their wine sales. Wine by the glass varies hugely, and some see it as a quick way to profit, but look out again as you may put the diner off buying more, even at the early aperitif stage.
4. The look of the list:
Present the list in an appealing, approachable way. Group the wines by style, country or grape - whatever suits, but do it with an easy-to-understand system. Make sure all producers, regions and vintages are listed - so, ‘Sancerre Les Perriers Domaine Vatan 2005, Loire Valley’, NOT just `Sancerre, France’ which doesn`t help much at all. Then give a brief tasting note, name-checking the grape or blend (here, Sauvignon Blanc), the style of wine (a bone-dry, refreshing white with crisp lemon and mineral notes) and a general food match (salads, goat’s cheese, white fish). Keep things simple, straightforward, always user-friendly. Oh, and don’t laminate. Unadorned A4 pages are minimalist, cheap and just fine.
5. Streamline it:
Unless you are a very upmarket establishment, keep the range short and select. No one wants to spend hours ploughing through thousands of bins. Some of the best lists offer a finely tuned and versatile selection of just 20 or 25 wines. Done cleverly, this can still provide lots of variety, and it`s easy to keep up-to-date. Try to use several suppliers, even for a short list, cherry-picking the best from each.
6. Let your enthusiasm shine through:
Get a sense of excitement across in a wine list. Make the tasting notes sound mouth-watering; tell them how pleased you are with a particular wine; convey an interest in a region or grape variety. Even within a short list, it’s possible to have a specialist area - a stand-out, small group of brilliant Rhone reds, perhaps, or a strong, seductive set of dessert wines.
7. Add a few extras:
‘Extras’ like glasses of dry sherry, dessert wines, ports, Madeiras make money and add depth and interest to the list. Consider, too, a dynamic but short range of sparklers, for example vintage cava, New Zealand fizz and premium English bubbly and some local ciders and ales, perhaps.
8. Guests in the house:
The old-fashioned notion of ‘house’ wines doesn’t impress these days. Instead of having three or more cheap wines by the bottle and glass sold as the house reds and whites, it’s more adventurous and stylish to feature well-priced, easy-drinking ‘guest’ wines. For example, a selection of rich Southern French labels to list in the winter, followed by a crisp, elegant set of northern Italians for Spring. Any of these ‘guests’ can be listed permanently if they prove highly popular.
9. Size matters:
It is crucial these days to offer plenty of wine by the glass. Change the ‘by the glass’ offer regularly to suit the season and menu and so that you can highlight exciting new finds. Consider two sizes of glass (choose from 125ml/175ml/250ml) and even ‘carafes’ of, say half a litre, a hugely trendy concept right now and one which works well for simpler ‘quaffing’ wines at lunch.
10. Fresh stock, fast turnovers, new vintages:
Keep vintages turning over regularly (and update your list religiously to say so). Tired old ros™ is often seen on restaurant wine lists and it damns the whole venture. Make sure you move on fast and don’t keep too much stock at any one time. The only mature wines on the list should be rich reds, a few whites like fine Rieslings and top Burgundies and vintage Champagnes. Bring on vibrant new pinks, light whites, sparklers and dry sherries. Fresh, modern, young wine? I`ll drink to that.
Susy Atkins also writes a weekly wine column for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, and appears regularly on BBC1`s Saturday Kitchen. susyatkins.com