It's a good time to take a fresh look at your wine offer. Think carafes, food and wine matching, fewer "names", small producers, lighter wines, biodynamics … and try giving Riesling a chance, urges Fiona Sims
New year, new wine list. OK, maybe not new exactly, but a few tweaks here and there will help to bring it up to date and move it along with the seasons.
The big story on wine lists over the last year has been carafes. They're everywhere. And operators are also pushing obscure wines in them - I've spotted a couple of Kerners, even a Txacoli.
Soho restaurant Arbutus has been doing it for a while now, along with Wild Honey, its award-winning sister restaurant in Mayfair. Most of the 55 wines on the list, many from little-known regions, are offered by the 250ml carafe (375ml for the more expensive wines). Will Smith, its wine-savvy co-proprietor, says at least 70% of tables order at least one carafe, some many more. Even though the mark-ups are standard for London, the carafes are perceived by the customers as good value, he says.
And it's not just a London thing. Cambridge newcomer and Caterer Adopted Business Alimentum, which opened its doors in July, also offers all its bins by the 250ml carafe. "It allows diners to really explore their vinous options," declares first-time restaurateur John Hudgell. Wines include a Grüner Veltliner from Leicht & Trocken (£7.50 in carafe) and Cullen's Margaret River Semillon-Sauvignon at £10.
And talking of wine trends, we would have had another big one this year if it hadn't been for those curmudgeons at trading standards. Yes, the Wonder Bar at Selfridges thought it was really on to something when it launched its wine jukebox last summer. Insert your Wonder Bar card, press a button and voilà, a measure of 1996 Château Pétrus is released automatically into your glass - £32 for a 25ml sip, £95 for 75ml or £160 for a 125ml glass.
But the "sips" aren't legal, moaned the ministry, citing consumer protection. It's legal to serve wine in only 125ml and 175ml servings, or multiples thereof. Selfridges is now campaigning for a change to that law and has reluctantly reset the machines to provide only standard sizes - so watch this space.
Meanwhile, food and wine matching has come on in leaps and bounds, providing operators with ever more innovative ways to upsell to their customers. The boys at London restaurant Texture continue to wow diners with their antics, which include offering a 90-bin Champagne list and encouraging the drinking of it throughout the meal.
Co-owner and top sommelier Xavier Rousset reports a huge success with his innovative fish and fizz menu (£115), which pairs dishes such as Scottish scallops with cauliflower "couscous" and Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1996.
Making sure your wine list suits your menu is a top tip. So many restaurants don't take the menu into account when choosing their wine list - particularly those which like to pack their list with "names". This not only undermines what the kitchen is up to, it also creates a lost opportunity for the restaurant to choose wines that actually complement the food and create a real sense of individuality about the place. More dialogue between the chef and the sommelier would be nice to see.
Individuality looks set to be a key trend for wine lists in 2008. In other words, don't be a slave to big brands and familiar names and regions - mix things up a bit. Wine consultant Doug Wregg, who works for multi-award-winning wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrene, thinks the industry needs to be much braver. "Ignore perceived trends and try something different," he urges. "Even if, as a restaurateur, you have a relatively commercial list, spice it with some interesting wines - and sell them. Hand-selling an unusual wine is immensely rewarding and customers remember that extra element of service."
So where to look? Wine consultant Peter McCombie has had his finger firmly on the pulse of many a top restaurant wine list. "Look at Italy for diverse flavours and styles, Spain for fleshy, yummy reds, New Zealand for elegant whites and of course Pinot Noir (although Bordeaux reds and Syrah are looking pretty smart too), Chile for affordable - but not dirt cheap - reds, and of course unknown France. People forget that outside the famous, glamorous areas there are some great wines to be found in France, but you have to dig a little bit," he advises.
According to Wregg, the Loire is a good place to start, being a great source of elegant Cabernet Francs and sexy Chenin Blanc, while Cru Beaujolais, with a touch of minerality, is definitely coming back into fashion. He also backs Portugal, declaring its whites to be "much better" these days, while its reds offer "real identity".
These days people are increasingly looking for elegance and minerality over flashy, oaked-up fruit-bombs - they're far better with food, and a more interesting drink. This year Malmaison/Hotel du Vin wine buyer Claire Thevenot will be searching the world's cooler climates for these kinds of wines, and at the top of her list are Savoie and Jura from her native France, while in the New World she will be looking to Australia for Rieslings from the Clare Valley and some cooler-climate Semillons.
Former sommelier-turned-wine consultant and now wine bar operator Kate Thal, of Green and Blue Wines, is putting her money on Italy to add interest and spring-clean her wine lists. "Especially from very small producers doing really quirky things," she adds.
Italy was a popular choice with all those I spoke to, although Wregg spoke for many by saying: "I wish people would acknowledge that there's more to Italy than Pinot Grigio and Tuscany". Rather he singles out whites from the Alto Adige, and the complex, aromatic wines of Friuli. "Sicily is also good to look at in that the co-ops provide good value fruity house wines, but there are some seriously exciting wines from Vittoria, Etna and Messina," he adds.
McCombie, who is also drawn to the south of Italy, says: "Campania's native varieties like Fiano - think the weight of Chardonnay with subtle fruit and perfume unburdened by oak - are also beginning to make an impact on consumers."
As for talk of a growing trend for lower-alcohol wines, Wregg argues that balance is more important than low alcohol. "I think restaurants should be looking for pure, expressive wines that are not smothered in oak oak is not a substitute for flavour. They should be sourcing wines that are natural and easy to drink, digestible and pleasurable, and not pretentious," he says.
"If this means wines that are lower in alcohol, then yes. The top cuvée may be the one that wins the medal, but can you drink the wine with any pleasure? I think that customers are going to become aware of the true value of wine, and that big doesn't equate to better." Lighter wines to look out for include those from Savoie, Txacoli, Rias Baixas (Galicia), northern Italy, Germany (Nahe, Mosel) and South-west France (Cahors, Marcillac and Fronton).
One buzz word for 2008 looks set to be "biodynamic". Even wholesalers like Waverley TBS and Thresher are getting in on the act and stocking more biodynamic wines. And 2008 could finally be the year of that most misunderstood grape variety, Riesling.
"We keep saying it but it's true: Riesling is such a great grape for spring and summer," enthuses McCombie. "Recently I gave some corporate punters a fruity but dry Austrian version, which blew them away. Also, New Zealand seems to be getting to grips with the variety, and Alsace and Australia are as reliable as ever. If people could only get over themselves there's also much drinking pleasure to be found in Germany."
Wregg's Great Wine List Spring-Clean
- Get new vintage rosés on early first glimmer of sunlight and everyone is pinky and perky.
- Check those vintages - you don't want tired old white wines knocking around on your list.
- Freshen the selection by adding more aromatic whites (and reds) and drop a few blockbusters.
- Try promotions by the glass one of the great spring-cleaning measures is to rotate wines by the glass.
- Make sure staff are trained in selling wines by the glass.
- Ensure that when you're serving wines by the glass you taste them for quality control.
- Get your customers involved. Why not open a different bottle every night and let them taste some new wines? Alternatively, use the front page of the wine list (or blackboard) for specials.
- Pair five dishes with five wines. Get a grower to host an event celebrating the food and wine from a particular region.
List the benefits:update your wine list layout
You need to make sure that you have a good range of prices and styles to suit everyone, encouraging customers to be adventurous, while at the same time being comforting and reassuring. Including some key growers and producers along with some good years will do the latter, while the former is achieved through time and effort.
"Familiar wines don't frighten people," says Peter McCombie. "They also allow them to put the unfamiliar wines in some kind of context, while unfamiliar wines let you offer customers real value for money. But of course, to make it work you need to make sure that training is carried out regularly.
"And stop trying to be all things to all people - you can put together a wine list without a dull Pinot Grigio or cheap Rioja," says Doug Wregg. "The so-called eclectic wine list is often the list without a heart or a head."
Wregg also suggests looking at different ways to divide your list into style categories. "If certain categories are heavily oversubscribed or you have a preponderance of certain grape varieties, ask yourself whether the balance of the list should be changed," he explains.
Finally, ask yourself whether your list really is interesting. "Wine lists shouldn't be a simple digest of wines make sure they're informative, unintimidating, easy to navigate, preferably with tasting notes, full growers' names, vintages updated, etc," urges Wregg.
"Customers are spending between 25 and 40% of their bill on wine - give them value for money and treat them as intelligent adults."