How to choose wine in a restaurant

Vine Time columnist Samantha Venter takes a look at how wine lists work in a restaurant and gives you the Sommeliers Selection as a guide

sommelierWine lists can be a tricky business for restaurants – how far do you go in matching your wine list to your food? Do you offer familiar favourites, or encourage customers to try something different?

Deciding on house wine or by-the-glass offerings takes a balancing act of finding a quality wine at a reasonable price, and one that’s likely to please most people. Apart from the house wine, how many wines on a wine list is enough to give diners a sufficient range of choices, but not burden the balance sheet with unsold stock?

And with an eye on costs and profit margins in a competitive market, which wine seller is offering the best deal or added value?

Faced with all these choices, it’s understandable, although sad, that many restaurants take the path of least resistance, opting for safe choices and wine lists filled with those familiar favourites. (There are notable exceptions among local restaurants – more about that another time.)

There’s nothing wrong with well-known, popular wines – the trouble is that consumers aren’t exposed to a wider range and the exciting new wines coming out of our vibrant wine industry; and for food-and-wine lovers, the same choices just get a bit boring.

Sommeliers SelectionEnter the Sommeliers Selection – judged by some of the country’s top sommeliers based not only on quality and “wow factor”, but also on how well the wine partners with food.

The resulting “ultimate wine list” compiled by the sommeliers is especially interesting because it groups the wines by style rather than cultivar, with each category offering a selection across wine varieties, blends and pricing, and the category names suggesting likely food combinations.

Whites are “fresh and crunchy”, “elegant and classy”, “full and rich”, or “luscious and aromatic”, while reds are judged as “fresh and juicy”, “elegant and classy”, or “voluptuous and rich”.

Happily, the list also suggests “economically savvy” wine-by-the-glass options that offer wine lovers something more interesting than the usual suspects found on most wine lists.

One of those that made the by-the-glass list, for example is Ultra Liquors Secret Cellar 808, a refreshing and flavourful chardonnay-chenin-grenache blend that would make a great house wine (I, for one, would be very happy to be served this in a restaurant!), and at a retail price of around R35 must surely offer the restaurant-owner a good profit margin.

The list also doesn’t demand that restaurateurs go off the beaten track to seek out tiny boutique wineries – big names like Leopard’s Leap and Spier are there, along with smaller producers such as Highlands Road, their super chardonnay making the list for the second year in a row.

The Sommeliers Selection wine list is sent out to restaurants countrywide, and hopefully inspires owners and chefs to widen their horizons a little. The food- and wine-loving public are catered for too – look out for the Sommeliers Selection neck tags on the winning bottles in stores. Find the wine list on or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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