|Less Geography, More Flavor?
Champagne, then whites, then reds; within the reds, Bordeaux, then Burgundy, then Italy; within the Italian reds, Tuscany, then Piedmont, then elsewhere…the traditional wine list was organized with an eye toward regionality. The more recent shift toward winelists that are divided by varietals reflects the New World’s importance in winemaking, and many lists today are some combination of those two schools of thought.
However, many restaurants are favoring a third way: listing by character, or flavor profile. This can mean lightest to fullest-bodied, or breaking things down more explicitly: floral whites, oaky whites, spicy reds, fruity reds, and so forth. Sound fun? Here are 10 things to think about if you’re building your list around flavor profiles.
- How many categories will reflect your selections the best? Within whites or reds, you need at least three stylistic categories to make the flavor divisions look meaningful, but too many categories become hard to negotiate and can be exasperating for the guest. Aim for three to five categories in whites, and three to five in reds; if any category looks puny compared to the others, you’ve either found a weakness in your wine program, or your categories need rethinking.
- Make your categories consistent. If part of your list is divided aromatically, and another part by body, you’re sowing the seeds for confusion. Does the Viognier go under “floral” or “full-bodied”? A smaller list can go with light, medium, and full-bodied; aromatic divisions offer more variety, so can help break down larger lists into meaningful chunks.
- Prices. Be aware that some sections may tend to feature less expensive wines than others; light, crisp whites that don’t require any oak-aging are inherently cheaper than oak-aged California Chardonnays. If you aren’t careful, your categories may look more like price points to the guest. Fostering this perception can frustrate the guest, so make sure there’s some overlap in prices between different sections; find an affordable full-bodied white, and a crisp white that’s a bit pricy. Even if it’s just a couple of bottles in the cellar that rarely move, they’ll make the list look more balanced.
- Decide how to address tricky varieties. Guests looking at the “full-bodied whites” will probably see a lot of Chardonnays; are they missing out on the lighter, unoaked Aussie Chard or Chablis on the previous page because it’s lighter? If the guest buys in to your categories, it’s not much of a problem, but if they’re committed to a particular varietal – as many wine drinkers are these days – they may miss out on some of the possibilities. Even worse, a wine drinker might see that Aussie Chard on the “light, crisp” page, and avoid it since it doesn’t match with their preconceptions of the grape.
- Feature unusual varieties. Want to introduce a guest to Blaufränkisch, or Dolcetto? Nestle the former in among some Syrahs (black pepper spice!) or Chiantis (that cherry fruit!). Slip in that Dolcetto among some Merlots on a ‘lush and fruity” page. Left to their own devices those wines might languish on their own; put them in more familiar company and guests will give them a chance.
- Make life easy for your staff. If you don’t have a devoted sommelier on the floor, and especially if staff turnover makes training difficult, a flavor-focused list answers a lot of questions for the guests so the servers won’t have to. Nothing replaces server training and enthusiasm, but this can be an added boost of confidence, especially when the server knows what category holds the most typically asked-for grape varieties.
- It puts food pairing on the table. Speaking about flavor profiles—especially if you focus on structural elements like tannins and body—can make it easier for guests to pair their wines with their meals; servers can also turn to it for the same reason: “If you want a red with your fish, I’d recommended something from the ‘lighter reds’ page, sir…” they say as they run their finger down past Barberas and Pinot Noirs.
- It starts the conversation. Rather than letting the guest find their favorite varietal, cross-index it to their price point, and order, flavor-profile categories can begin a conversation between the guests and the sommelier (or server) about the list. This opens the door to new experiences (remember that Blaufränkisch?), improving the chances that the guest will get a wine they really love, and enhancing their service.
- Younger guests are very receptive to unusual wine list organization. The Millennials, a much talked-about new generation of wine drinkers, while not averse to learning about wine, don’t come with a lot of baggage or assumptions about different grape varieties. So organizing a list by how the wines actually taste makes sense to them. They’re not so concerned with whether a wine’s Californian, Australian, or South African as long as it tastes like what they were looking for. Older guests can be less trusting of less-familiar wine regions, so be prepared to point out their old stand-bys, be it Bordeaux or Napa Valley
- It’s all subjective? Probably the big caveat for this sort of list: there will be guests who disagree with the description you slap on a category, and it’s hard to argue with them. Vocabulary problems are particularly tricky this way: a guest may find that Chianti to be less fruity when the dry tannins kick in. You know it’s got lovely cherry bits on the nose, but to them, “fruity” meant a soft finish. A live sommelier has the chance to read a guest and choose the appropriate sort of winespeak, but your list isn’t as adaptable once the guest starts reading. No format can substitute entirely for training your staff well and selecting your wines carefully.