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How to Judge a Restaurant by its Wine List

The wine list can be a very good way to judge a restaurant. Just be glancing the wine list, without being a wine expert, you can get a sense of the restaurant’s creativity and enthusiasm. In most restaurants wines are normally subject to a huge mark up on the price you would pay in a wine shop so here are some tips for things to look out for.

A good sign is when the list has a varied selection of wines that you may or may not be familiar with. Look out for grape varieties such as Malbec, Gruner Veltliner, Godello, Listán Negro – names that entice you and give you an opportunity to engage the waiter with, for example “Which of these wines would you recommend bearing in mind I am going to order the Sea Bass?”

A wine list does not have to be long with pages and pages of wines in order to be interesting. When you sit down you want to be able to scan a list of maybe 20 or 30 wines wines. Nowadays the tendency is to have shorter lists that are changed more regularly. When I consult for restaurants on their lists I highlight the importance of keeping the list fresh and varied especially for regular customers.

Obviously some restaurants have more space to store wines and can have a carry a much larger selection in this case I suggest that they have a wine book for the real wine aficionados.

Here in Spain it is not a good sign if the list is stuffed with the wines from the ‘3 R’s’, Rioja, Ribera y Rueda together with a selection of local wines. Very little creativity has gone into selecting the wines, probably will be the same case with the food.

Another good way to judge a restaurant is to see how many interesting wines they serve by the glass. It is always better to ask,’which white wines do you have by the glass’ instead of ‘I want a glass of white wine’. It shows curiosity and interest and normally will result in you being served better wines.

I love to see wine lists that offer suggestions of different wines with each dish, giving the customer reassurance to try new combinations of food and wine. Taking this one step further is when restaurants have ‘tasting menus’ pairing wines with dishes. This shows that time and thought has gone into creating the menu. It also provides you the customer with a great opportunity to taste wines that are new.

Another trend in restaurant wine lists is to list the wines according to style rather than by region or price. By clever use of infographics the whites could be ‘fruity’ or ‘crisp and dry’, ‘summer tropical fruits’ and for the reds ‘smooth’, ‘red berry flavours’, ‘full bodied’, ‘hints of oak and spice’.

If you are a couple and just want a glass or two each. It is cheaper to buy a bottle of wine, however, don’t feel you have to drink it all or leave the bottle. Ask for the cork and take the bottle home, after all you are paying.

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I am a Northern Irishman based in Valencia. My career in wine began more than three decades ago, in London. I am the founder of TheWinePlace.es, an online store, where wine enthusiasts can enjoy a selection of international wines and Verde Marte, a company dedicated to exporting Spanish wines. Also, Thewineplace.courses, an "approved program provider" of the courses of the prestigious WSET. I share my passion for wines through my media work writing weekly columns for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and 5 Barricas, an online wine magazine.

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