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Friday, October 21, 2005

In on a little secret: how to pick good value wines from fancy lists in Europe

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I'm speaking of my secret to get the most value out of my sadly depreciating dollars from the wine lists at fancy restaurants in Europe. I've been doing this for a while, but never thought to tell anyone about it. You -yes, that's you- will be the first. ;-)

It occurred to me that my little trick might be of use to others when, at the beginning of our recent dinner at the lovely Greenhouse in Mayfair, my friend Tony commented that the sommelier must have taken a liking to me, spending a long time concurring with me on which wines to pick for our table. The sommelier on duty that night was a sweet, bespectacled Frenchman who really did spend a lot of time with his nose buried in the list searching for something suitable for us. Something like this happened not infrequently with me, but I'd never really noticed it until Tony made that comment that evening. I gave the sommelier a little puzzle to solve, you see, and he was doing his best to solve it.

What was the puzzle, you asked? It was this: find a bottle of white and a bottle of red for our table to go with the tasting menu we ordered. And not just any bottle of white or red, I didn't want to spend more than 50-75 pounds per bottle, and I wanted them to be something from lesser known producers or appellations, especially those that would be hard to find back home in America.

Is there a method to this madness, you asked? You must be wondering if I conjured up this puzzle only to make hapless sommeliers jump through hoops just for my amusement. Alas, even I am not that mean. Yes, there certainly is a method to my seeming lunacy. That price range is where the best deals are to be found in fancy European wine lists, at roughly 50-70 pounds or 50-100 euros per bottle (London mark-up is higher). And no, I'm not just pulling this number out of thin air. At this range, the wine directors of these restaurants cannot simply rely of the famous names of First Growths or Grands Crus, because even the wholesale prices are far too high to be featured profitably in a wine list at around 100 euro. What they would have to do is trust their nose and palate and search for wines from lesser known appellations or producers, whose prices have not sky-rocketed out of range of reason.

To me, this is a great test of a good sommelier. Anyone can fill a wine list with fancy Bordeaux and Bourgognes, but it will take a good nose and palate to find suitable Juronçon, Anjou, Jasnières or Condrieu worthy of their company. Even among well known areas and famous producers, good deals could be found: perhaps a white Bordeaux from a Grand Cru producer better known for their reds, or perhaps a red Austrian wine instead of the more famous white counterparts.

Often, these sommeliers would proudly show me their secret finds, an obscure Saumur producer in Champigny whose red wines can give other more established reds a run for their money, or a deliciously sweet and honey-like Jurançon that's far better than any Sauterne at the same price range.

I also find it far more fun to explore new flavors and try wines that would be difficult for me to find in the US. Well-known wines from fancy producers I can always find in the US, often at wholesale prices even, but these secret appellations and small producers are must harder to come by. I have been taken on many delightful journeys, discovering areas, appellations, and producers that were new to me, all by tasting these wines, and by simply asking nicely.

Of course, each person has their own preference when it comes to wine, and sommeliers –great as they may be- cannot read minds. So, it would be very helpful to tell them your likes and dislikes, so that they could make an educated choice for you. If you are uncomfortable with wine terms and don't feel like you could describe your taste adequately, perhaps you could point to a well known type of wine that you have previously enjoyed. The more clues you could give, the easier you would make it for them to better help you.

I've used this trick for a while, and have been very happy with the results so far. Try it and let me know what you think. And happy exploring!

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