A great wine list doesn't have to be a lengthy leather-bound tome written in fancy script -- in fact, more often than not the best restaurant wine lists are simple, concise, and user-friendly.
Call me an idealist, but I like to think my favourite wine lists are born out of a love of wine and food, and the overall experience of sharing both with friends. Having said that, there are a few key components I typically find in my favourite wine lists:
Familiarity. While I'm a tireless advocate of trying new wines, the inclusion of a few tried-and-true popular favourites helps keep a wine list from becoming intimidating or confusing. Diners need a starting point from which they can try new wines. These more popular wines can incite discussion between the guests and the server -- something like "If you like wine X (the popular wine) you'll love wine Y."
Diversity. At the same time as the comfort of familiar wines is important, so too is offering customers a healthy cross-section of choices -- grape variety, flavour profile and so forth -- on a wine list. Diversity also means keeping a wine list fresh and current; this can be as simple as changing a wine list seasonally with a menu, or test-driving new wines as a monthly feature or a by-the-glass pour.
(Speaking of wines served by the glass, eschewing the same old super-safe whites and reds by the glass is a plus. I get excited when I see off-the-beaten-track whites and reds as by-the-glass pours.)
Value. You're never going to pay the retail price on a bottle of wine at a restaurant, and I have no problem with that -- from storage to staff training to glassware purchase/maintenance to retaining an inventory, there are plenty of associated costs. One way savvy restaurateurs up-sell wine is to mark up pricier bottles less, encouraging diners to splurge on a pricier bottle of wine to get a better value. Nothing wrong with that.
Information. Even a line or two highlighting a wine's basic features helps provide guidance. "Light and fruity" is all I would need to see to know a mid-range Cabernet Sauvignon won't have the backbone to stand up to a big steak. Descriptors can go so far as to offer a few adjectives about the flavours of the wine; some wine lists even suggest food pairings. And if the wine list doesn't offer descriptors, a server should be able to talk about the wine and suggested food pairings.
Compatibility with food. The most important point. You can have the cleverest wine list in town, but if the wines don't match with the meals you're not doing anyone any favours. And while most wine Winnipeg wine lists feature input from whoever is selling the establishment the wine (Manitoba Liquor Marts or private wine stores), the best wine lists include input from chefs as well as servers.
The people who create and/or serve the dishes are the ones getting the feedback from diners as to what does and doesn't work. A food-and-wine pairing sounds good in theory, but if people doing the eating and drinking don't think it works, it's time to have another look.
There's plenty more to factor in, but these are the touchstones of a great wine list. What are some of your favourite wine lists in Winnipeg? Leave a comment on the Free Press website, send me an email or @ me on Twitter.
Smart Grasshopper 2011 Grºner Veltliner (Hungary -- $9.68, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Grºner Veltliner typically translates into highly aromatic white wines, and the Hungry Grasshopper fits right in that wheelhouse. Pear, honey and floral aromas are livened up by spice and tangerine notes on the nose. It's lighter on the palate than, say, Chardonnay, but wraps similar red apple, honey and lemon flavours in Grºner's unique spice component. Very well done for the price. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2
Louis Jadot 2011 Combe Aux Jacques Beaujolais Villages (Beaujolais, France -- $18.01, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The nose on this Beaujolais Villages is textbook Gamay: ripe cherries and raspberries, perfume and a hint of strawberry candy. This light-plus bodied French red delivers pure ripe red berry notes on the juicy palate with a splash of acidity and some subtle earthy notes that add complexity. Excellent stuff. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö
Joel Gott 2011 Riesling (Columbia Valley, Washington -- around $26, private wine stores)
This tight Riesling shows green apple skin, floral, waxy and lemon zest aromas. It's a dry, light-bodied and lean Riesling, with green apple, tart lemon and under-ripe peach flavours, with a touch of racy acidity; it's a good wine for aperitifs, as it'll get your mouth watering. 'Ö'Ö'Ö