A perfect wine list, what's yours?

A question. What would your perfect wine list look like? If you were to go into a restaurant and pick up the wine list, what – in an ideal world – would you like to find?

I’m going to set a rule: no wrongly priced or under-priced wines. We have to be a little bit realistic, and we want to be able to return to this amazing restaurant again and again. Which means that it has to make some money.

First, I would want a transparent, honest list. It would start with an explanation of the pricing policy. The most affordable wines would be marked up by a standard gross profit margin, but not an excessive one. I wouldn’t want anything terribly cheap, but would start with wines that might retail for £9-10 on the list at £20-24. Once we’re up past about list-price £35, I’d opt for a cash margin – say £20 at first, and then for the pricier stuff £30. I’d explain how this pricing works to the customer. They aren’t stupid: they know a restaurant has to make money from wine and that it is marked up more than retail. But knowing that there’s a cash margin on the pricier stuff might encourage them to go up the list a little. This honesty would obviate the need for restaurant-only labels and exclusivity to the on-trade, because there’s no fear of customers finding the wine in retail and thinking they’d been ripped off.

Now, some specifics (and this isn’t going to be an exhaustive list of names, because it is done from the top of my head, and I’ll be missing some good things out). For Champagne, I’d like my personal favourites. Things like Champagne Le Mesnil (the brilliant co-op Blanc de Blancs wines), R&L Legras, Drappier and Philipponnat, as well as a couple of slots for less well known grower Champagnes. I would tend to avoid zero dosage fizz. I’d add a couple of English sparkling wines, probably Ridgeview and Camel Valley.

I’d then have a section for Sauvignon Blanc, including the likes of Cape Point, Blind River, Dog Point, and for cheaper slots leading Touraine Sauvignons, which are excellent value. For something quirky, I might choose a northern Italian (Inama?) and something from Graz in Austria.

Riesling. This will be quite a big section, spanning dry to off-dry, with sweetness levels indicated clearly. From the Mosel, Maximin Grunhaus Abtsberg Kabinett; from Nahe, Donnhoff; from Austria, Emmerich Knoll; from New Zealand, Pegasus Bay, Yealands, Framingham; from Alsace, Trimbach CFE, Boxler, Weinbach, Zind Humbrecht. I’m not sure I’d need Australia.

This leads me onto Grüner Veltliner, and they’d all be Austrian, with Knoll, Loimer and Schloss Gobelsburg leading the field.

I’d want a good selection of Chenin, with the best from South Africa (Testalonga, Intellego, Eben Sadie) combining with the Loire (Saumon, Huet et al), with a Kiwi thrown in (Millton). This is where I’d try to smuggle in a few natural wines. Natural Chenin can be so good. This category would overlap with the orange wine category coming later.

Chardonnay would be a strong category, largely because new world Chardonnay is now so good. Look at Australia (Bindi, Oakridge, Stonier, Yabby Lake, Shaw & Smith), New Zealand (Neudorf, Kumeu River, Dog Point, Ata Rangi) and California (Sandhi, Au Bon Climat, Saintsbury), for example. I’d go to Burgundy, too, but aim for unearthing the better value wines. I might find space for a Chablis?

I have already mentioned Alsace, and I’d need to include some top examples of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, which can be just mind-blowing. Maybe a top Kiwi example of each, too?

Lighter-style reds would be a big category. Vins de Soif – wines that, above all, exhibit drinkability. Some naturally made Beaujolais would be perfect here – and fortunately there are now lots of them. Maybe a new world Gamay, too? Loire Cabernet Franc and Côt would make an appearance. This is where natural wines come in handy, because they are often so open, sapid and elegant. Eben Sadie’s Cinsault would be super here, and Jamsheed’s Pepe Pinot. I just can’t get enough of this style of wine. I’d try to get hold of some of the Gamay from the Ardeche that’s currently stocked by Marks & Spencer, because it’s cheap as chips and eminently drinkable, and I know who makes it. The Gamay from the Auvergne co-op that is imported by Richard Kelley at ABS would also be brilliant. And what about Trousseau from the Jura, and the same variety under another name as Bastardo from the Douro (Conceito)?

This would lead on to Pinot Noir. There are just so many great Pinot Noirs from New Zealand, California, Oregon and Victoria that it would be unfair to begin to name names. New Zealand would probably have the lion’s share, simply because their pricing tends to be a bit saner. In fact, I could just about live without Burgundy, such is the quality of New World Pinot these days. If I were to include Burgundy, it would be mature bottles, sourced carefully. There’s no fun in drinking young Burgundy before its time, so I wouldn’t list it. I’d likely make exceptions for some of the more natural guys, such as Pacalet and Sabre.

Spain? I’m heading north west. Bierzo, Ribiera, Ribera Sacra, Monterrei – those regions, for red wines with freshness and little oak influence. I might also include a natural Bobal from Valencia. Rafael Palacios’ Godellos might get a look in on the white side. I can’t see Rioja or Ribero del Duero getting a look in, alas. Should I sneak in a Juan Garcia from Arribes?

Portugal would have a slot, but I’d confine my attentions to Dão, Bairrada and Douro, looking for fresher, more vital reds with a sense of place. There’s now so much to choose from in the Douro, so I’d try to look for reds and whites with more personality and elegance. Dirk Niepoort’s Drink Me could be a house red, as could Duorum’s Colheita or Crasto’s Douro red. Baga from Bairrada would be a must: it’s so food friendly. Aside from these, there’s space on my list for a Vinhão, a red Vinho Verde. Quirky but fabulous when it is done well.

The Syrah section would be exclusively cool climate. From Australia, Jamsheed, Shaw & Smith, Clonakilla. From New Zealand, Man O’War, Kennedy Point, Bilancia, Villa Maria, Cambridge Road, Craggy Range, Fromm, Trinity Hill. Then, of course, the northern Rhône: too many to list, but my value wine would be from Maxime Graillot, and Jamet’s Vin de Pays.

I’m aware that I’m probably beginning to run out of room, so there are going to be some losers here. Chile will struggle to find a spot, Argentina might well just be Achaval Ferrer, and Italy’s contribution may be on the natural wine front, rather than for its famous reds (although I would have to have a Langhe Nebbiolo or two, and maybe a Lagrein from the mountains). I’m not sure where Bordeaux would figure. Maybe some older, mature stuff, and some whites (which are underrated).

I will find a space for Orange wines, that is, skin contact whites. Here I’d include some Friuli/Slovenian whites (Gravner, Zidarich for example), the new breed of South African skin-contact Chenins, and the best wines from Georgia.

More quirky stuff? Well, the southwest of France needs a mention – a good Fronton and a top Marcillac would be compulsory. Perhaps an Irouleguy, too. Greece would need to be represented by a top Assrtiko, and maybe a Malagousia as well. Hungary should be able to provide an elegant Kadarka and a fresh Kekfrankos (but not a ripe, oaky one, please). And I’d love to have a white from the remarkable terroir of Somlo.

Now we are heading to the end of the list, and the sweet stuff. This will be led by Sauternes and Port. I love Sauternes, so I’d put quite a few in, with some mature bottles. I love Port, too, and my list might well be led by Tawnies, with a quality LBV and a top single-quinta Vintage Port in support. I would add in here some Moscatel de Setubal, because these can be really excellent and quite affordable. I’d finish the list off with some older Aussie fortifieds, a truly unique and wonderful style of wine.

So, a very personal list. It probably wouldn’t make a lot of money, and I’m likely being naive. But a fun exercise, none the less.

 

27 comments to A perfect wine list, what’s yours?

  • Frankie Cook

    A very enjoyable read!

  • Frank

    Interesting to see your take on this, though you neglect to mention what kind of restaurant this list would be in. Intentional? I’d say your list would fit a sort of Terroirs/10 Greek St type place. Could you see this working in your local pub?
    A good list is one founded in quality and opinion, but to be great it must be relevant to the food, style and most importantly price of a venue. For me the majority of the list ought to be at (or just below) the average food spend per head. Though many places do just create lists by numbers, rather than the heart-on-sleeve style you set out.

  • Dan McGrew

    I like the Riesling section, but a list that doesn’t contain Grosset Polish Hill and/or Watervale Rieslings is not complete.

  • Lawrence Tanner

    Nice list overall! Do think Chile has some good wines though, increasingly organic having learned from the past, definitely worth investigating I think.

  • I definitely agree with what you say about Bordeaux!
    Cool list!

  • Simon T

    Interesting thread…
    The only thing is that the wine list alone is a one-dimensional exercise as it doesn’t speak to the food on offer, although I do appreciate that this is a ‘utopia wine list’ exercise. As someone who probably has 20% of your wine knowledge (have worked in trade for 11yrs but am not as ‘active’ in education as yourself) the best wine lists are where I don’t actually get one and the Sommelier tells me what I need to imbibe. It is very rare I put us in their control, but sometimes the restaurant has the right standard to do this and the results are generally sublime. Aside from that I think I’m on the same page as you in terms of ‘VFM’, which doesn’t translate as cheap, rather that you get something for a ‘fair price or less’, although again as someone without the immense breadth of knowledge, I wouldn’t have a clue whether Jamsheed’s (sic) Pepe Pinot is good value at £30,40 or £50.

  • Justin Roberts

    Very attractive list, though surely a little sherry could be squeezed in somewhere?

  • Great looking list, though the prices are a bit ‘London’. I cannot imagine a provincial restaurant surviving with wines strarting at £20+. £14 -£16 is more realistic, but this still permits a fairly decent house wine. Nice to see some room for a Portuguese wine or two – great wines with food but almost always noteable by their absence on the restaurants I visit. I like the ‘fresh’ approach to Spanish reds. I find most too heavy and labouring but the NW is definitely an area that makes wines with some crunchy fruit and freshness. I’m with you on having a Juan Garcia – a marvellous grape that needs more exposure. After that you can work folk up to a Bruñal, but let’s go a step at a time!

  • Some great comments.
    Yes, sherry is a big omission. I should have a decent palo cortado and a VORS amontillado, plus one of the new fino en ramas?

    And this isn’t a creative, tailored list. I agree, any wine list should be fashioned around the food on offer, and sometimes, less is more – a small, perfectly formed list that doesn’t cover all these options might be best.

    This was really thinking out loud. Perhaps I should try to build tailored lists around several hypothetical establishments. What about a small list of, say, 8 wines, to a budget, for a chain?

    That’s where the real skill comes in.

  • Mike Murdoch

    Jamie
    I think you are being naive about the pricing policy being explained, there is no need for this. The type of list you advocate is aimed at wine savvy people who will 1. Know what they are ordering/buying. 2. Expect to pay the margins made by Hotels and Restaurants.
    Lets face it every establishment requires/needs different profit levels. If you are offering a sommelier to advise his or her cost need to be factored in likewise if you do not then there might be a need for a more descriptions on the list.
    Back to the profits charged by Hotels & Restaurants it is not just the basics that you have to address it is the overall balance of both the list and MIX of wines sold that generate the right profit for the right establishment.
    Sell all Champagne and the margin is going to be low, you do not expect to see more than 35 – 40% on high end and 45 – 55% on the rest of the Champagnes but you could expect to see up to or over 70% on some others (I am talking GROSS PROFIT not Mark up) It is the balance of overall sales that generates and moves the business forward. Cash margins in my experience are applied to bottles costing over £100 and then a cash amount is added.
    Regards to the Sherry I suggest that these would mostly be sold as an aperitif so belong on the bar not the wine list. It could be argued that they are also served with desserts so I advocate a separate list to encompass Port – White through to Vintage, Marsala, Sherry and Madeira. With a separate section or list for dessert wines by the bottle, half lire or glass to accompany the dessert menu.

  • Damien

    Fundamental flaw is a lack of how wine is priced; retail at £9-10 is more like £26 (65%GP) to £30 (70%GP). Nick, you’re being totally unrealistic these days I’m afraid, £14 in a restaurant is £4.10 cost and that’s at 65%GP; most operate at least on 70% for the entry-level wines, which makes that £4.10 bottle £16.
    It also excludes every wine Jamie mentions.

  • Damien,
    I was just making the point that wine lists realistically need to start well below the £20 mark for house wine, if one wants any customers. And £14 -£16 really is the price for house wine in most restaurants outside London. See this list from one of Colchester’s top rated (tripadvisor) eateries. http://www.theoldsiegehouse.co.uk/alacarte_winelist.html

  • Keith prothero

    Bugger the wine list. Just allow a reasonable corkage as I find inevitably that most wine listed is far too young for me.
    More than happy to pay £50 or so in the really top restaurants.

  • Damien

    Nick, as someone who has compiled wine lists for the on-trade for the last 10 years in the South West (just as rural if not more so than Colchester), I can assure you no-one wants to make less than 65%GP, most aim for 70%. That £4.10 bottle is how the maths works out. Customers need to realise it’s gone up in price, just has food, and beer. The list your link points to is unable to give a producer’s name to their wines, because they’re cheap generic wines and nothing like those that Jamie mentions. They’re probably buying that SW French white for around £3.50 (ex VAT). Remember in a few weeks time duty on a bottle in the UK will be £2 alone. Keith’s comment is the ideal way forward for those who truly want a decent bottle of wine.

  • Frankie Cook

    I’d love to be able to take my own wine to more restaurants, as long as the corkage isn’t exorbitant.

  • Damien,you are absolutely right, and the wine list mentioned is fairly depressing in its generic choices. And I realise that 65% GP+ is what people strive for/need if their businesses are to survivie. the Tricky thing is to set the price competitively while being suffiiently interesting for the wine lover. Sounds like this is your stock in trade. Keith Prothero has a point, BYO and make a corkage charge(£8-£10 flat rate?)and leave it at that.

  • Damien

    As far as corkage is concerned, you’d be surprised how many are willing to entertain the idea but are never asked; it’s always worth mentioning when booking. And Nick, what’s all the more depressing is that 80%+ of consumers will buy that sub-£20 wine, you’re right, because they have no interest in the subject or in trading up. The wine drinker subsidises far too many poorly run kitchens (i.e. wasteful) and overpaid chefs, and non-wine drinkers’ meals I’m afraid.

  • Mike Murdoch

    I only par a flat rate of £10 a bottle where I live. It is not worth bringing in a bottle around £15 and paying the £10 corkage but a plus side if the wine is £50 or £60 at shop prices.
    You are right some restaurants don’t advertise that they do this but most have a button set up on the till so just ask when booking !!

  • william

    A very, very, very good point on the “there’s no harm in asking” for corkage at the time of making a reservation – never thought of that. Having said that, I have enjoyed my wife’s cooking and Jamie’s wines for many years and it’s a pretty fine combination :) :)

  • Andreas

    I would take a completely different approach: No bottles but 20 to 30 wines offered by the glass and perfectly accomodate the food. I think that this will be the trend going forward. People do not want to buy an entire bottle (unless it is a bigger crowd at the table). So you got more choice to try out different wines with the food. Also frequent visitors would get the chance to discover more wines. The patron who is a wine lover gets the opportunity to present more wines and ideas. A win-wwin for all.

  • Andrew

    A good post generating a lot of comments. Pricing aside, I think I’d generally like to see a slightly more focussed list, rather than cherry picking a few great wines from every region. Say a list that’s strong on Australia or Iberia for example, with a few other wines if you’re just not in the mood. That way you can pick your restaurant depending on what you feel like drinking and trust that the wine team has done their research and will present some real gems that you might not have heard of.

    You dream wine list obviously sounds pretty good, though I’d definitely have Ribera del Duero on my Spanish section and probably Montsant. And Argentina too – their wines usually seem pretty delicious and are usually pretty well priced.

  • I would need a good Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine sur lie for shellfish along with a 1er cru Chablis, so Chablis would make my list. I would add a Riesling ice wine from the Niagara , because I’m Canadian, eh. Also for Sherry newly bottled Finos and an aged PX for the desert section.

    I think your thought process as you built your list is brilliant.

  • I would place there some nice CabernetFranc from Loire, maybe something from southwestern France, from Plageoles for example. Maybe also Catena-Malbec from Argentina and one of my personal german favorites: the Frühburgunder, always some Teroldego from Foradori and and a little bit more Riesling, especially from Rheinhessen.

  • Bob Parsons

    + 1 for the Muscadet, also a nice Vinho Verde.

  • Jamie, thanks for including the Hungarian local red varieties plus my beloved Somló aswell :)

  • Katy

    I’m always impressed by a short but really exciting list – it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts! I love it when a sommelier sticks his or her neck out for a handful of wines they really love, and that work well with their food, rather than “ticking all the boxes”. It makes decisions quicker and easier allowing punters to focus on enjoying themselves rather than trawling through a weighty wine tome.

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