Despite popular conception, a restaurant wine list is not a form of oppression—a restaurant wine list is just a catalog. If you like wine, even a little, the restaurant wine list can be fun to read. Most contemporary wine lists are organized by one or more wine categories, such as region of origin, but the progressive wine list, organized by flavor characteristics, is rapidly gaining converts.
Wine List Fundamentals
Restaurant wine lists, like most catalogs, are usually organized into sections. Typical elements for each section include a brief overview of the category, the wine’s variety and the vineyard name, the vintage year, a bin number and, hopefully, a few tasting notes to help you make a choice.
Regrettably, not all restaurant wine lists include prices, but most now do. Additionally, some lists will show prices for not only full bottles, but half bottles or per glass. It is also common to see a separate category for “house wines,” available only by the glass, usually priced at the low end of the wine list as a whole.
Reading a Wine List by Category
Restaurant wines lists are commonly organized by, broadly speaking, category. However, lists can be categorized in several different ways:
- Dinner course, such as aperitif, dinner wines, dessert wines
- Colors, as in red, white, blush or rose
- Grape variety, such as Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir
- Country, commonly United States, France, Germany, Spain
- Region or appellation, such as Washington State, Napa Valley or Bordeaux
Progressive Wine Lists
Renowned Master of Wine, Tim Hanni, claims to have developed the progressive wine list after watching restaurant patrons struggle with a small book of unknown names every night. Many of today’s finest restaurants publish progressive wine lists.
Progressive wine lists associated wines according to their flavors, textures, and other primary characteristics. If you like bold, full bodied reds, a progressive wine list will group several selections together, with brief tasting notes for each. Perhaps you like California Zinfandel, for example, but see that the progressive wine list suggests that, if you like the Zin, you might also like a Syrah or Shiraz from Australia, based upon common characteristics.
The progressive wine list is not only less intimidating, it can also be a welcome, useful tool to use when learning about wine variations.
“Light and fruity” could be a category on a progressive wine list, and within the category, you would see a range from the lightest to the deepest fruit flavors, and be introduced to varietals you’ve never tried, but might enjoy, if you liked something nearby on the list.
Wine lists need not cause panic. The lists are not at fault—it’s the doubly and trebly over-inflated price markups commonly levied on restaurant wines that should scare you. The lists and catalog features of the wines themselves, however, can be quite enjoyable and instructive.