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Build a terrific wine list

When it comes to restaurant wine lists, wine lovers have little to complain about these days. It's easy to find formal restaurants with superb wine lists, along with simpler roadhouses, bistros and trattorias with exciting choices. And thanks to the Internet and forward-thinking restaurateurs, consumers can peruse restaurant wine lists and menus online and make decisions before arriving at their "wine destination."

To build a terrific wine list takes time, energy, money, talent and attitude, so most good lists are in a constant state of becoming. If a restaurant rests on its laurels (or in this case its vines), it risks losing customers, as they may perceive the wine list as stale. Here are some things to consider.

First, the list should be clean, graphically appealing and easy to read. We know that restaurants often have subdued, soft lighting, but your customers shouldn't have to use a flashlight.

Second, the list should be arranged in some logical order: grape varietal, geographical designation, body of the wine and food pairings are some of the ways to do it. If the list is organized by varietal, you might want to skip past the Chardonnay and Cabernet in search of something new and different. Guests will always find those two grape types no matter where they are on the list, but they might miss an interesting Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or even a Torrontes from Argentina among the whites, or a delicious Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo or Xynomavro from Greece. If your establishment is in a wine-growing region, it's nice to have a highlighted section of local and regional wines.

If the list is organized geographically - by country and wine regions - we like to see an easy-to-follow, consistent format. For a small list, it's probably best to highlight a country (e.g., Italy) and then include the name of the region in each listing (Chianti Classico Riserva, Badia a Coltibuono, Tuscany 2003). If the list is large or dedicated to the wines of onecountry (in this case, Italy), then major regions should probably get their own subheads (e.g., Tuscany), and the wine listed would read Chianti Classico Riserva, Badia a Coltibuono 2003. 

Arranging a wine list by the body of the wine (light, light-to-medium, medium, medium-to-full, full, etc.) can be a tricky business. One man's medium-bodied wine is another's medium-to-full. We think that these types of wine lists provide a general road map for the restaurant's approach to wine and should be taken with a grain of salt. "Body" lists also assume a familiarity with wine that not everybody has; maybe that's why you don't see many successful lists arranged this way.

Likewise, if the list is arranged by pairings (wines for veggies, for fish, for meat), we use it as a thumbnail sketch to match the restaurant menu. There can be a world of difference between the wine your guest chooses for salmon poached in lemon-grass broth and the one ordered to pair with grilled salmon with rice and black beans.

Computers allow restaurateurs to keep their wine lists current and complete. There is almost no reason why a wine on a computerized list should be suddenly unavailable or would have mysteriously undergone a vintage change. Customers don't want to go to the effort of choosing one wine from many and then be told that they can't have it or that the vintage is different. To stay on top, the restaurateur, sommelier or whomever is in charge may have to update the list several times per week.

Call us traditional, but we still think it's important that there's an understandable relationship between food and wine. A steakhouse is likely to feature lots of blockbuster reds and a smaller number of carefully chosen whites. A restaurant known for its fish might do the exact opposite, but with a bit more emphasis on "crossover" reds, such as Pinot Noir. A vegetarian restaurant? Some of the most exciting ones have exciting wine lists, often featuring wines made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes. Asian and pan-American restaurants  often feature small or large lists of fruit- and spice-driven whites, such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Southern Hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc, as well as light, fruity reds (Beaujolais, Valpolicella and lighter examples of Zinfandel), as well as dry rosés and sparklers. Those bubbles do wonders in putting out the fire of curries and chilies.

If a trattoria or ristorante wine list is, say, all Italian, a good selection of affordable wines from many of the 20 wine regions of Italy should be available for your diners. Likewise, a Spanish-inspired tapas bar may offer Spanish wines only, including a variety of Sherries, to help create an authentic dining experience. A Greek restaurant might have a harder time selling the public on a totally Greek list, but Greek wines should be featured.  - steven kolpan, brian h. smith and michael a. weiss.

Wine & food pairing guidelines

  1. Temperature at which you will serve the wine: Chilled, cool or room temperature. Chilled wines can relieve and contrast the heat of spicy foods. Also, hot outside temperatures may suggest a chilled glass of wine, whereas cold damp weather may have you thirsting for a big dry red or even a mug of glogg.
  2. Body of the wine: Very light, light, medium, medium-full or full. Use body to balance a dish's power.
  3. Level of sweetness: Dry, semidry, semisweet or sweet. The wine should be at least as sweet as the food.
  4. Level of acidity: Low, medium or so tart you drool with pleasure. Acidic wines cleanse your palate of richness; they also pair well with tart foods.
  5. Level of alcohol: Low, medium or high. Lower alcohol is best for spicy or salty foods.
  6. Level of bitterness. Bitter wines are better than semisweet wines with earthy foods.
  7. Level of oak influence: None, a hint or so high you taste bark. Very oaky wines complement smoky flavors or grilled fish and meats.
  8. Level of complexity: Simple, interesting or amazing. Truly complex wines shine when paired with simple foods, and vice versa.
  9. Major flavor(s) and aroma(s) of the wine:
    Fruity - Stone fruit, citrus, red or black fruit? Dried or fresh?
    Floral - Violets, lilacs or roses?
    Spicy - Dark savory spices (cumin, coriander), dark sweet spices (cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, allspice) or green herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme)?
    Peppery - White pepper, black pepper or bell pepper?
    Smoky - Embers in a fireplace or smoked meat?
    Other - Gamey or leather aromas? Mineral? Pair wines with foods that have complementary flavors. For example, Syrah/Shiraz almost always smells and tastes of black peppercorn, making it a nice match for pepper-crusted New York strip steak. Likewise, the salted almond flavor of Manzanilla Sherry comes shining through when served with trout amandine.
  10. Wow factor: Does the wine make you smile? If so, experiment with many foods. Part of the fun of pairing is the excitement that comes from discovering an unorthodox but magnificent combination.

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