Jefford on Monday: Lessons from the list

For most of the last decade, I’ve acted as the wine-list consultant to a London restaurant. The list isn’t laden with first-growth verticals. Instead, we try to make it as enchanting and user-friendly as possible, with bottles from as many origins as possible, each given a short description and listed within their relevant sections in price order. The sommelier I work with loves the notion of the ‘garden of grape varieties’, so if we have a guiding principle, that’s it: variety above all.

Domaine de la Romanee Conti

Domaine de la Romanée Conti - 'resigned to selling a little less...'

September is always the time for tidying the list before sending it off for scrutiny by the various restaurant guides. Every year, I draw a little balance sheet up in my head concerning hares and tortoises. In contrast to Aesop’s fable, our hares always win and sell out briskly, while the tortoises have to be coaxed along with lettuce leaves, waiting for the right customer. The ‘right customer’ for an unusual wine, of course, isn’t the most gullible: we don’t want unhappy drinking experiences. Instead, he or she tends to be the most knowledgeable – someone who has tried all the obvious choices, and wants something horizon-expanding if intrinsically risky and low-status.

As usual, our hare-in-chief over the last year has been Burgundy - no wine copes better with a table of four or six different dishes than Burgundy of either colour. Everyone, moreover, seems to love the idea of Burgundy, even if their expectations are mired in misconceptions. The snag with Burgundy is vintage variability … which is why we’re trying to get out hands on every bottle of the 2009 vintage which we can. Few great vintages can ever have drunk more attractively at this early stage. Successful Pinot Noir from other locations, especially Central Otago, works well, too, and Chardonnay still seems to be the white variety which most customers trust more than any other, no matter how many alternatives you provide. (They’re probably right.)

Bordeaux isn’t far behind Burgundy – but it tends to be a ordered as a ‘statement’ bottle, which is why big names are unfairly easier to sell than bottles which offer much better value. We pop more Champagne than I would have thought possible – and, to my surprise, our small-grower, terroir Champagnes are doing well, though they need sommelier advocacy. Non-Champagne sparkling wines, by contrast, are perennially foot-dragging, despite often attractive value for money. Ordering a sparkling wine which isn’t Champagne in a restaurant always seems to make hosts feel like Scrooge. It shouldn’t be so – but that’s the power and value of an image, hence the fortune spent by Champagne on lawyers’ fees to protect its name.

The Loire continues to outperform Alsace (dogged in restaurants by uncertainty about residual sugar levels – we always tell customers, but the problem seems to stop them even enquiring). Spain and Italy enjoy more or less equal favour, with Piedmont and Priorat both adored by the cognoscenti; Portugal, alas, never generates the interest its wines merit, though it often delivers our ‘bargain of the year’ in one form or another. The wines of the Southern Hemisphere have a strong following among younger drinkers, and many of them now have the income to enjoy the likes of Giaconda and the Sadie Family as well as less expensive bottles. (Our almost exclusively French sommelier team, by the way, loves screwcaps, and finds little customer resistance to them.)

The slowest tortoises of all? I don’t like to kick a country when it’s down, but Greek wines don’t seem to lift anyone’s duvet: that section has several delicious wines which appear glued to the list. I would also advise French winemakers against coming up with rebelliously ‘unconventional’ table wines or Vins de Pays in classic French appellation regions like the Loire or the Rhône. Customers take one look and think ‘What’s the point?’

We are resigned, as a footnote, to selling a little less Domaine de la Romanée Conti next year than last, since it seems unlikely that younger male members of the Gaddafi family will be dining out in London much over the coming year - and they were devoted customers. But if any of our clouds has a silver lining, that’s the one.


Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com