In which Jon reveals all the components of a top-notch list…
In 2013 UK consumers spent a little over £50 billion eating out. That compares to a similar, slightly lower, figure on alcoholic drinks and, by comparison, around £90 billion on groceries. Clearly restaurants are big business and a lot of people eat a lot of their meals out these days.
Which means, of course, that a lot of us are often choosing wine from that most troublesome document; the wine list. So, what makes a good wine list? I spend quite a lot of time writing them so I often end up trying to answer that question. Here are some thoughts.
Length is important. While personally I love a huge wine-library of a list I think for most restaurants, shorter is generally better. But, and this is crucial, the list really must be well curated. Short must imply hand-picked, carefully selected and well considered wines.
Seasonality. As food changes through the seasons so must the wine list. A minimum would be a summer and winter list. I guess this could be achieved by having a main list plus a few seasonal specials but some seasonal change is needed. After all, who wants a choice of hearty reds mid summer or six rose options mid winter?
It needs to match the food. Obvious I know, but this could be the country in question, certainly the style of food and also the price. It seems odd to see an Italian restaurant with an international wine list when there are so many great Italian wines that will surely also suit the food. A seafood restaurant will naturally offer more white than red, and first class food needs first class wine. A really good wine list can create a wonderful halo effect, setting customers expectations for the quality of the food.
It needs to give clear information. The basic information you need from every list is; who made the wine and what is it called, where is it from, which year and, of course, the price. Some comment is helpful to explain if the wine is oaked or not or whether it has any sweetness. Finally, the dreaded description full of words like tangy, zesty and fresh. I am amazed though, how often much of the above is missing.
Innovation. Personally I love to see something on the list other than just the classic styles. So, perhaps a nice Spanish Godello or a red Teroldego from North Italy. Unusual and lesser know wines can offer value, interest and can liven things up. Provided, of course, they taste great and go with the food.
Price. This is a tough one as restaurants need to make money. But, the more forward thinking operators accept that fair pricing will actually attract customers. Conversely, it worries me to see wine on any list much under £15 as, these days that is going to be very basic indeed.
Personality. This is the thread of style or interest that takes a list from good to great. You can tell when someone loves their wine and has enthusiasm for it. It is hard to quantify this fairy dust factor but you know it when you see it.
So, which restaurants have the best lists? Well I have my opinions but, since I’m selling wine to these guys, I’m keeping that to myself. There is only one way to find out. Get out there and spend your part of that £50 billion.