A lot of us have a love-hate relationship with the restaurant winelist. On the one hand, we know it holds the potential to enhance theevening, impress the date or client, broaden our horizons, or all three.But, it can also make us feel intimidated and overwhelmed. Whetherit’s a traditional telephone book-sized tome or a techie tablet, the winelist presents some vexing questions. Will that splurge bottle reallydeliver? 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 whiteand 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 wineall day every day, seeing something we’ve never heard of or triedpreviously on a wine list is exciting. But, for most people, trying tochoose a bottle from a sea of choices provokes major performanceanxiety. Can this wine I’ve never heard of possibly be any good? Doesmy selection measure up?
It would take a whole book (and a lot of delicious ‘homework’) toexplore the answers to these questions to the fullest, so here I’ll cut tothe chase with my top tips for finding the gems on a wine list.
Take my advice; restaurants are the place to try something that’snew to you—especially those offering a thoughtful wine-by-the-glassprogram. 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 eachget two different varieties and share. That allows us both to try fournew wines instead of just a glass each, which adds enormously to thefun and discovery of dining out. If you want to do the same, here aresome stops to consider on the road less traveled.
Oregon, for Riesling
Most people jump straight to Oregon Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, thestate’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’vetasted in the last year—subtle and layered, with stony minerality andneon apple and key lime notes.
This classic region and its eponymous white wine based on theGarganega grape have taken a major about-face in quality. I’mseeing artisan Soave Classico producers on many a thoughtfulwine list, and absolutely loving them! The same is true for whitesfrom the Friuli region of Italy, which, happily for American winedrinkers accustomed to grape varietal names on the label, usuallylists the grape. Look for Friulano or Sauvignon Blanc and you’llbe rewarded with an abundance of ripe tree and exotic citrus
fruits, vibrant acidity and a tingling minerality that really pops theflavors of food.
Reds from the indigenous Xinomavro (powerful and spicy) andAgiorghitiko (subtle and smoky) grapes, blended with familiargrapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, offer a new taste experienceand great food compatibility, especially with rich pastas andslow-cooked or smoked meats. While Santorini whites fromthe Assyrtiko grape are like an aromatherapy treatment for yourpalate.
Nothing commemorates, celebrates or impresses better than aspecial wine. These are my picks for the ‘trophy’ style wines thatover-deliver.
The real stuff (from the Champagne region of France) is amongthe most affordable luxuries on the planet. The big brands, calledGrandes Marques, are like a blue chip stock—you almost can’t gowrong with any of them. Also look out for ‘grower’ Champagnes—small artisan producers who only make wine from their owned
Spanish Rioja Reserva andGran Reserva reds
These wines based on the region’s Tempranillo grape are, by law,barrel-and bottle-aged longer than wines from almost any otherregion. The aging contributes a kind of bewitching leathery-spicypotpourricomplexity to the scent and fl avor typically experiencedonly 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 itbecause the quality for the price is better than ever and recentvintages have been great. Look for these on the steak house winelist when you’re looking for an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignonthat’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 yousee 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 fennelnotes all slide around in the glass and on your palate. The tanninsstart out velvety then snap to attention with a chalky minerality thatmakes 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, allso lush on the palate, underpinned with a brooding dark earthinessand salinity that’s true to the identity of the region. It’s got a wowfactor 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 whitepeaches) and ripe Bartlett pear notes, shot through with snappyacidity and crackling minerality. Delicious.