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.