Words: Mr Mellors, Gamekeeper Turned Poacher (he used to make you drinks & carry your food, now he watches others do it and has kindly written this piece on how to choose wine)
I see plenty of words written about the food these days but the drinks very often only get a cursory mention. Now, I know not everyone can be so well read and drunk so much as I but, come on, everyone likes a drink don’t they? In reality though, I have spent a considerable amount of time ‘behind the stick’ pulling beer, making cocktails and pouring wine. So here, in my opinion, are some of the factors that go into making a good wine list, where to get a good bottle of wine and what to choose in the restaurant or supermarket (and some of the things you should avoid);
Wine in restaurants is a rip off!
Well, no, actually. We all seem to understand that a steak costs a certain amount to buy in a supermarket for us to take home and cook ourselves, but four times the price in a restaurant, yet are unable to correlate that to wine. The same factors that make that steak £20 when you sit down in a restaurant apply to wine – the mark up helps keep the lights on, the staff employed in quiet times and the fridges stocked.
Don’t drink the house wine!
If you’ve got two pennies to rub together you should put them to good use and choose something better. With the current level of duty, that’s the Chancellors cut, at £2 for every single bottle of wine brought into the country you don’t really get very much ‘bang for your buck’ with entry level these days. Add to this that VAT is a further 20%, then industry experts reckon as little as 11p may have actually gone into making a ‘house wine’ that a restaurateur has paid £5 for. The rest is the packaging, logistics of getting it there, importers and retailers margins.
If £7.50 is spent then the amount that goes into the wine increases thirteen times to £1.46. Imagine that, the quality of the juice, skill of the winemaker, and technology used, improved over ten times. If you were sitting in a restaurant then this bottle would typically cost around £20-30 on the list.
If £10 is spent the duty is still the same £2, the costs of packaging and logistics remain about the same as a £5 bottle but the value of the wine in the bottle leaps twenty five times to £2.82! Again, if sitting in a restaurant this would be marked up to around £40, but boy can you taste the difference in quality.
Never heard of it!
For years more wine has been produced than consumed, but with the explosive growth in emerging economies, and the growing global middle classes and super rich, that has now changed. Wine has been seen as a commodity for too long but that’s no longer the case when demand outstrips supply.
This has helped fuel large price rises in the well known fine wine regions of Europe (as well as some poor recent vintages), and led to wine merchants seeking out new countries and emerging regions where prices remain good value. See something on the list from a region or country you don’t know? Then ask about it, odds are it will be comparatively better value than the more well known wines that surround it on the list.
Trade up the list!
I’ve already mentioned the three to five times mark up that restaurateurs apply to generate profit from the wine list that helps mitigate other costs but the truth is they often apply the higher mark up at the start of the list and reduce it as they go up in price. The entry level wines will sell more, and are often the ones available by the glass to add more volume, so this is where the highest markups are applied. As you enter the higher end of the list, these are the bottles that don’t sell as much and will have less of a percentage markup, to encourage customers to try them. I worked in one establishment where a flat £20 (plus VAT) was added to all wines that cost over £20 to buy in, making them great value for money.
Don’t be afraid to ask!
A lot of time and effort is spent selecting, tasting and choosing wines and then writing the actual list, so if you are not sure then ask. Odds are there’s someone who works there who either wrote the list, had a hand in selecting the wines, tried it in staff training, or who is just enthusiastic about wine and will be able to help choose a bottle or give you advice.
And here are a couple of places I think have put the effort in and have well written lists;
The Cherwell Boathouse, 50 Bardwell Rd, Oxford OX2 6ST
Owned by the Verdin family, who used to be in the wine business themselves, this is a very well chosen list that has the bonus of storing and ageing many of the wines before they go on the list. Determinately Old World in focus, you have to take your hat off to an establishment that can list twelve different German Rieslings ascending in sweetness! Ask nicely and they may let you buy a bottle and sit on the outside benches whilst watching the tourists attempt to punt.
My pick – The Henri Pelle Menetou-Salon at £30.25 per bottle (according to the website). Just over the river from the more famous town of Sancerre, this is classic Loire Sauvignon Blanc.
1855, 4 Oxford Castle, New Road, Oxford OX1 1AY
Opened last December, this is a sleek, modern, and eclectic wine bar in the Castle complex, with a list chosen by Alistair Cooper, who is in the final stages of studying to become a Master of Wine: a process akin to getting your Doctorate at the University.
My pick – Dry Furmint, Dereszla, Tokaji, Hungary at £5.20 for a 125ml glass. Hungary has a long and noble history of wine production and is known for its delicious sweet wines. Here, one of the native grapes used in the dessert wines has been used to make a dry, aromatic white wine similar in style to a Sauvignon Blanc.
The Magdalen Arms, Iffley Rd, Oxford OX4 1SJ
Now a stalwart of the Oxford scene, this archetypal gastro-pub has an off the wall list with very few recognisable names for comfort. Though service can be poor when they are busy, and the wine glasses are awful, I still keep going go back time and time again. It’s by far the best pub wine list in town.
My pick – Saint Chinian, Les Pradelles, Languedoc, France at £4.75 for a 175ml glass. Not your typical heavy, Southern French red, this is far lighter and sophisticated than most, which mainly contain Carignan and Grenache.
Malmaison Hotel, Oxford Castle, 3 New Road, Oxford OX1 1AY
The brasserie serves a great steak and has every wine at £35 or below available by the 500ml carafe or two different glass sizes – that is twenty seven different wines by the way. By far the best and widest selection available in Oxford by the glass.
My pick – the Colonial Estate Explorateur Shiraz at £24 for a 500cl carafe. Textbook Aussie Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, packed full of brambly fruit and peppery spice.
Kazbar, 25-27 Cowley Rd, Oxford OX4 1HP
Now spring has arrived I love sitting at the bar having a few tapas and watching the strange folk of Cowley wander by. An almost all-Spanish selection, with the addition of a few South American recognisable names, this is one of the few places in town to get a chilled glass of zippy, zingy Manzanilla sherry (it’s very fashionable you know)!
My pick – Muga Rioja Rosado at £19.50. None of your overly sweet, ripe ‘blush’ here this is a lovely delicate bone dry rose that slips down far too easily.
Lastly, I always get asked what to buy in the supermarket and my advice is this – buy something from the Taste the Difference, Finest or whatever the equivalent range is. These are wines that have been chosen because they are great examples of the region they come from not something that has been reduced to tempt shoppers in to purchasing them.
Right, I’m off for a cold beer.