Crack the Code – Learn to Read Between the Lines of a Wine List
A wine list is like a CV, there is organised (ideally) information but also, a wealth of unspoken clues for the savvy eye to decipher. Both the wins and the fails of a vinous menu tell you a lot about the level of care and attention a venue puts into its wine list and today, we’re going to talk about how to read between the lines of regions, prices and minimalist descriptions that cover the pages of a restaurant or bar’s wine menu.
But before you even open it, there are some signs that your inner semiologist can interpret. Who is the wine list handed to? The gentleman? The lady? Did the sommelier have a streak of Swiss neutrality and wisely leave it on the middle of the table? There is still some sexism in drinks and very classic establishments might abide by a protocol that’s not precisely avant-garde. It’s up to you to get offended or pick your battles (I’d advise the latter).
Once it makes it to your hand, there are still several telling signals that will teach you how to read a wine list between the lines. Is it wordy as an encyclopedia and just as heavy? Beware, unless it’s a place with a reputable cellar. Just as an overly extensive food menu is hard to handle, so is a drinks selection.
Is it laminated or does it look old and even the youngest vintage traces back to more than three years ago? Red flag. Remember that wine is made every year and bottles meant to be drunk young should, well, be drunk young. They either haven’t updated the wine list or the wines have been there gathering dust for ages and neither is ideal.
And now you’re reading…
A good wine list will give enough information for you to have a general idea of what to expect from a wine, but not too much that it’s overwhelming or irrelevant.
One crucial difference between wines from the Old World (a.k.a. Europe) and the New World (a.k.a. everywhere else) is that wines from the first will traditionally highlight the name of the region they come from while the latter will give the spotlight to the grape variety. A good wine list that combines both would provide complementary information on both the region, the grape and of course, the winery.
Some go the extra mile and add a short explanation like “crisp and fresh”, “rich and bold”, etc., either after each wine or as little sub-categories to help you choose. This is a good sign, as it shows that a) they know what they’re selling, b) they care enough to tell you. However, take purple prose with a pinch of salt, a haiku is better than a saga when it comes to menu descriptions.
Perhaps one of the biggest no nos on a wine list (and any menu) is a tendency towards typos. Yes, it happens in the best families, but still shows a lack of attention to detail that might permeate everything else.
One thing that speaks well of a wine list is lack of redundancies. If the amount of options is limited this is especially important: you want a selection where every bottle is there for a reason and serves a purpose, and having two wines for the same job is a luxury that only the longer lineups can afford. If you only have five whites and five reds, make them count!
Finding the Best Value
You know by now that the cheapest and best value aren’t usually the same. When it comes to a house wine, which tends to be the least expensive, have a look at it and think about why is it relevant in an establishment.
An affordable young villages wine in a cosy French bar or a cheap and cheerful white from Spain at a tapas bar might actually be good choices: they’ve been selected for their price, yes, but there is a sense of coherence between the type of venue and the type of wine. Long story short, a house wine that actually represents the “house”: yes. A house wine that is just cheap and has no connection with the restaurants’s style or menu: might be worth throwing in the extra couple of Euro.
But if you have to choose between the cheapest and the second cheapest, you might as well stay at the bottom of the list. The penultimate one tends to be the wine with the highest markup, sitting there close to the edge, banking on your insecurities as no one likes to be seen as a cheapskate.
In general, the better value will be in the middle of the road and the upper half, especially in Ireland as the taxes for wine are so high that they make an inexpensive wine pricey. But then again, extremes are to be approach with caution and the most expensive bottle on the list is not necessarily the best.
If you are going out with plans to really treat yourself and you are thinking on ordering something special, it’s worth doing your homework and checking the venue’s website to take a look at the wine list. If you are the obsessive type, maybe even check a couple of reviews for the wine you are thinking of ordering. Of course, if all you want is to make a statement then by all means, carelessly make the staff’s night with your disposable income.
Another hint at spotting a bargain: just like in real estate, what “x” amount can get you in a high demand site and in a suburb varies greatly. Would you rather a tiny flat in Dublin or a three bedroom semi detached house in Kildare? Would you rather an entry level Burgundy from a well known name or a complex yet relatively obscure bottle from Slovenia, Hungary or other up and coming wine regions? This, just like choosing a home, is very subjective, but ultimately, relying only in a region’s or winery reputation will cost you.
Decoding the Non-Menu
Smaller, casual places might not have a wine list at all and instead opt to feature the wines on offer on a board. Is it dusty and hard to read? Run (or at least, rum, instead of wine). Is there no wine list on sight and when you ask for the options the server tells you “white” and “red”? Just get a pint.
Contrastingly, if it’s filled with aesthetically pleasing handwritten names of wines combining regions familiar and less known, we’re interested. It’s not all about nice calligraphy, of course, so three questions that will help you are: a) Are the prices reasonable? b) Is the basic information indicated? c) Is the staff aware of the selection and able to answer simple questions? Then proceed.
A Final Note
Remember that you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy wine, but knowing what you like surely helps you find it. If you’re at a place with a sommelier or knowledgeable servers, don’t be shy and start a conversation. If they are doing their job well, they’ll know the list so you don’t have to, and will be keen to stop and talk to you to help you find the perfect bottle for your evening.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.