WHINING AND DINING
by Tom Doorley
I see that Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic of The Observer, has been pilloried in the press for appearing to advise people to buy the cheapest wine on the list in restaurants.
Despite the fact that he didn’t. Presumably that’s what a whole lot of media wanted him to say, but he didn’t say it. He was simply making a very reasonable point about the pretentiousness that so often afflicts the world of wine, or, as he puts it rather succinctly “bollocks”.
London is awash with pretentious and, for many, intimidating wine lists and they drive me mad too. I’m glad to see Mr Rayner fighting back. “If a wine list irritates you,” he told the Cheltenham Literary Festival, “just buy the cheapest on the list and tell them to piss off.” (I read this in the Daily Telegraph which has a tendency to use fucking asterisks, so I’m guessing the actual patois that was employed).
I take his point but if a wine list got that far up my nose I’d just be inclined to put it down to experience, make my excuses and leave. Or not make any excuses at all. I’ve done this more than once.
He also recalled asking a wine waiter at one of Jason Atherton’s restaurants to find him a Pinot Noir for £50, a request that was greeted with derision or, in the language of the CCF, dumb insolence. In the end, he found one for £49 himself.
Rayner also echoes my view that it’s madness to buy expensive wines in restaurants because, frankly, it will cost you at least twice as much as it would at home. I love a Puligny-Montrachet but it tastes much better in my own dining room at forty-something euros than in a restaurant for the better part of a hundred. Even if we spend just €20 at retail this translates into the kind of money most of would never dream of spending when eating out. And think of what “house” wine costs.
Now, I’ll say this for Dublin; it has plenty of good restaurants, probably more than its fair share (in terms of population) of excellent restaurants and mercifully few restaurants that are up their own arses.
Every week an overpriced, pretentious, money-grabbing joint opens in London – sometimes two – and while the better critics like Rayner and Marina O’Loughlin and Fay Maschler clock them right away, the insecure and the overpaid flock to them. It really has nothing to do with food and this is the kind of place that uses the wine list as a kind of weapon in the fight for your wallet.
For a start, they demand stupid prices for indifferent wines, then they bamboozle you with winespeak. And their sommeliers look down their noses if you have the temerity to ask for something decent and good value.
If you have to eat in such a place (and I don’t know why you would if you’re not there to review it) the obvious thing is to fight back, order the cheapest wine and ensure that such establishments get as little of your money as possible.
However, as a general rule, the cheapest wine on a list in a proper, decent restaurant is almost certainly not the best value. The house wine will have been selected to be all things to all people while meeting a certain price point and delivering a reasonable margin. Something has to give.
Broadly speaking, in Dublin at the moment the best value is from the high twenties to about €36 (and you have to remember that we pay the highest taxes on wine in the EU).
As to value indicators beyond actual price, there are a few to bear in mind. Spain (with a few exceptions) and Portugal offer by far the best value in European wines. Even the exceptions – Ribera del Duero, Rioja and Rias-Baixas generally still offer reasonable value for money.
In France, Alsace is usually well priced compared to, say Burgundy in the whites. Corbières and Minervois deliver a lot of taste for your euro.
In the New World, I reckon Argentinian offers the best overall value but slightly quirky wines like Australian dry riesling is worth a try.
The best value wines in the world are of course, from Jerez. Sherry – proper sherry, the dry stuff – not only comes in quite a range of styles but is still weirdly undervalued.
When a restaurant makes a virtue of serving sherry, I always feel like I’m in safe hands. Indeed, I’ve never had a poor meal in such a place.
What else on a wine list tends to signify – not always infallibly, of course – a good restaurant? And I’m talking about Dublin here. And specifically grape varieties.
There was a time when Grüner Veltliner was an omen of good things but, to be honest, it has gone rather mainstream. Godello, the thinking person’s Albariño, is still sufficiently off-beat to bode well. The sight of Mencia – Spain again, usually in the form of Bierzo – can quicken my pulse a little. Offering serious wines by the glass.
And the bad signs? Pinot Grigio as a house wine. Having only two wines at house wine level, usually Chilean Chardonnay and Merlot. They are almost certainly going to be crap. Having only two wines by the glass. Listing any wine that we all know only too well from the supermarket.
And, finally, bad wine glasses: either poorly shaped, too thick or actually smudgy. Depending on how far away the hope of your next meal may be, it’s probably worth leaving now.