In my time I have created and written hundreds of wine lists for restaurants. My views about how to put together a great list have changed over my 25 years in this business, but my basic premise has not.
A wine list is a selling tool. There should something on it to make a wine leap out at the consumer, to entice them to part with their money and to make them want that particular wine with their meal.
Therefore certain information is needed on that list; the name of the wine, the vintage, the producer and, preferably a description that brings the wine alive. To me that is the minimum necessary to do the job – of course you can add maps, photographs and little articles about the regions, but most restaurants seem to regard that as too much.
I was working in France the other week and ate in several different places, most quite humble brasseries and bistrots. By and large the food was overpriced and not as good as the UK provides nowadays, but all of it was enjoyable to some degree. What struck me though, time after time was that the French wine drinker is very ill-served by most establishments – I cannot call them restaurants as there seems to be a real difference between restaurants, brasseries, bistrots, cafés etc to the French whereas we use the terms almost interchangeably.
Invariably the wine list was simply that; a list of Appellations Controlée together with a price for a bottle, a pichet and a glass. No wine name, no producer, no vintage and certainly no descriptions.
What is more, if you ordered a pichet or a glass, you had to take it entirely on trust that the wine was what they claimed – unless your tasting skills are finely honed. The white wine that I had in Dieppe was certainly a Sauvignon, but I can not be certain regarding anything else about it or any of the other wines I tried.
It is strange, to me that a nation quite so obsessed about food and wine as the French do not seem to really care about the finer points, about finding interesting wines with a story to tell and articulating that to their customers.
I am left feeling that the French often do not really care about what they consume, only that they have the required number of courses and a wine to go with it from a suitably famous, or sometimes local area. The fame of the name seems to be more important to them than the contents of the bottle, which seems a shame and certainly reduces my enjoyment of eating in La Belle France. The waiting staff, as with the few French people that I know socially are often very keen to go into raptures about ‘Côtes du Rhône’, ‘Bordeaux’, ‘Bourgogne’, or even ‘Bourgeuil’ with loads of emphasis, accent and oo la la as though such things are inherently great, but hardly ever a specific Côtes du Rhône or Bordeaux and never for a reason other than that they are from that famous appellation. Whereas in my experience the majority of lists in the UK offer some sort of helpful advice about the style of a particular wine.
It must be said, however, that on a superb visit to Roussillon last year, I was struck by how good many of the wine lists were, as regards the ranges, so perhaps less famous regions try harder to break down people’s preconceptions? Although even there descriptions were usually absent and the wines down there vary hugely in style.
Interestingly the only food and wine pairing advice that I was given in France, on my recent visit, was entirely based on an old fashioned assumption, one that many people repeat and believe; that the cheese course demands a red wine. I was in Normandy, so I took the advice head on; I ordered only Norman cheeses, Camembert, Neufchâtel and Pont-l’Évêque and a pichet of the Anjou Rouge that madame recommended, which was dreadful by the way, lean, mean and stringy with a complete absence of fruit. I also ordered a pichet of local cider from the A.C. Pays d’Auge. Guess which worked the best with the local cheese? So, new advice for consumers; soft cheese and cider is a really lovely combination.