A lot of us have a love-hate relationship with the restaurant wine list. On the one hand, we know it holds the potential to enhance the evening, impress the date or client, broaden our horizons, or all three. But, it can also make us feel intimidated and overwhelmed. Whether it’s a traditional telephone book-sized tome or a techie tablet, the wine list presents some vexing questions. Will that splurge bottle really deliver? Are the lowest-priced offerings real bargains or merely cheap? Will this wine go with our meal?
Food menus are easy because we understand the key terms: appetizer, main course, salad, fish, meat, and so on. But after white and red, most of us get lost pretty quickly with wine categories. (Burgundy—is it a style, a color, a place or all three?)
For us master sommeliers, who taste and study the world of wine all day every day, seeing something we’ve never heard of or tried previously on a wine list is exciting. But, for most people, trying to choose a bottle from a sea of choices provokes major performance anxiety. Can this wine I’ve never heard of possibly be any good? Does my selection measure up?
It would take a whole book (and a lot of delicious ‘homework’) to explore the answers to these questions to the fullest, so here I’ll cut to the chase with my top tips for finding the gems on a wine list.
Take my advice; restaurants are the place to try something that’s new to you—especially those offering a thoughtful wine-by-the-glass program. Some restaurants even price their wines by the taste or halfglass, in addition to glass or bottle.
My husband and I love tasting by the half-glass and we often each get two different varieties and share. That allows us both to try four new wines instead of just a glass each, which adds enormously to the fun and discovery of dining out. If you want to do the same, here are some stops to consider on the road less traveled.
Oregon, for Riesling
Most people jump straight to Oregon Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, the state’s best-known wine styles. That’s just fine, but the Rieslings -usually bone dry or slightly off-dry - are some of the most exciting I’ve tasted in the last year—subtle and layered, with stony minerality and neon apple and key lime notes.
This classic region and its eponymous white wine based on the Garganega grape have taken a major about-face in quality. I’m seeing artisan Soave Classico producers on many a thoughtful wine list, and absolutely loving them! The same is true for whites from the Friuli region of Italy, which, happily for American wine drinkers accustomed to grape varietal names on the label, usually lists the grape. Look for Friulano or Sauvignon Blanc and you’ll be rewarded with an abundance of ripe tree and exotic citrus
fruits, vibrant acidity and a tingling minerality that really pops the flavors of food.
Reds from the indigenous Xinomavro (powerful and spicy) and Agiorghitiko (subtle and smoky) grapes, blended with familiar grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, offer a new taste experience and great food compatibility, especially with rich pastas and slow-cooked or smoked meats. While Santorini whites from the Assyrtiko grape are like an aromatherapy treatment for your palate.
Nothing commemorates, celebrates or impresses better than a special wine. These are my picks for the ‘trophy’ style wines that over-deliver.
The real stuff (from the Champagne region of France) is among the most affordable luxuries on the planet. The big brands, called Grandes Marques, are like a blue chip stock—you almost can’t go wrong with any of them. Also look out for ‘grower’ Champagnes— small artisan producers who only make wine from their owned
Spanish Rioja Reserva and Gran Reserva reds
These wines based on the region’s Tempranillo grape are, by law, barrel-and bottle-aged longer than wines from almost any other region. The aging contributes a kind of bewitching leathery-spicypotpourri complexity to the scent and fl avor typically experienced only by collectors who buy wine to add to their cellar. With Rioja, the wineries have done that for you.
Italian Chianti Classico Riserva
This recommendation may surprise you, but I’ve included it because the quality for the price is better than ever and recent vintages have been great. Look for these on the steak house wine list when you’re looking for an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon that’s worthy of that beautifully marbled meat you’re about to savor.
Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko | Greece (2012)
Scents and flavors redolent of pink grapefruit and tender quince, mineral and floral layers that blossom with each swirl and sip. Usually we drink these young, but I’ve found this ages well, so if you see an older vintage on a wine list, go for it!
Fattoria Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva | Tuscany, Italy (2011)
Luscious is rarely a word you use with Chianti Classico Riserva. Savory and structured would be more typical. This wine is both. Warm strawberry compote, cedar, fresh oregano and sweet fennel notes all slide around in the glass and on your palate. The tannins start out velvety then snap to attention with a chalky minerality that makes this great with food as well as a great cellar candidate.
Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva | Spain (2005)
What a wine! Steeped tea leaves, dark chocolate, dark cherries, all so lush on the palate, underpinned with a brooding dark earthiness and salinity that’s true to the identity of the region. It’s got a wow factor that will impress wine newbies and connoisseurs, alike.
Penner-Ash Riesling, Willamette Valley | Oregon (2012)
This wine is redolent with stone fruit (think apricots and white peaches) and ripe Bartlett pear notes, shot through with snappy acidity and crackling minerality. Delicious.