Friday, 4 December 2009

Wine in Restaurants

Languedoc restaurants have a challenging existence being in a region where the main industry is tourism. Trade is seasonal and, beyond the cities that form an arc along the A9 from Nîmes to Perpignan, markedly so. This means few restaurants can charge the prices or sustain the volume needed to keep regular staff, let alone a sommelier, all year round. Wine consumption in restaurants is also in decline as, quite rightly, customers become more drink-drive conscious. That said, they do have on their doorstep a massive choice of the best value wines France has to offer.

As passionate restaurant goers, cuisine is our first priority and dishes are chosen before any consideration is given to wine. If the wine doesn’t complement a dish we pause our drinking. After all, a classic vinaigrette will ruin the taste of just about any wine while some modern creations have too much going on. Fine wine goes best with simple food.

Can Peio – this delightful Catalan restaurant in a converted train station near Sommières has closed and is much missed, except the wine list that is.

A personal but hopefully realistic wine wish list for the regions mainstream restaurants is: -
  • Make the core of the list local wines e.g. Minervois, Grés de Montpellier etc. including one as nearby as possible (that merits listing of course). Source these wines directly from the producers or perhaps a local cavist.
  • List wines from growers or even co-ops rather than anonymous blends from large enterprises – those wines should focus their resources on much needed exports
  • List wines by the glass and state how much a glass is. Also list 250cl or 500cl carafes decanted from bottles. Do this even if only one white, rosé and red can be offered in this format. These carafes have been a most welcome trend in London but haven’t come across them in the Languedoc.
  • Stock 50cl bottles, if necessary in preference to 37.5cl halves – a trend that’s growing but clearly needs cooperation from producers. That said, if carafes can be offered for a reasonable selection then these bottle sizes are redundant.
  • Use appropriate glasses for the quality of the wine, but definitely nothing heavy and chunky or the wrong shape
  • Make sure the bottle is in reach of the diners and don’t be upset if they pour the wine themselves
  • Only list wines that can be enjoyed now. A possible exception is when several vintages of the same wine are listed. Especially guilty are lists with a token young bottle of Mas de Daumas Gassac, Grange des Peres, Peyre Rose and the like. Customer demand or not, it must be unfair not to show these expensive wines at their peak.
  • State the alcohol by volume of every wine
  • Indicate the cepage. A Vins de Pays could be a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Carignan – obviously a big difference.
  • List some wines of the moment, but make sure these are worthy wines. This helps customers choose and can help the restaurant with stock control.
  • Taking this further, the Languedoc is a large and far more complex region for the styles of wine made than other French regions. Include a one line description of the wine to at least indicate how rich and full bodied it is. This is especially important unless knowledgeable staff are readily available and greatly helps those of us who read French better than hearing it. If this is impractical for all wines at least do it for the mainstream ones.
The length of the list isn’t important as long as a cross selection of styles is offered at sensible price points. On prices and marks ups all I will say is that while restaurants are obviously businesses, I strongly object to any drinks being a source of profit over food.

Some considerations to get value from a list are: -
  • Where more than one wine from a domaine is listed the “lesser” wines can often drink much better than the “prestige” cuvees.
  • Where there’s a fixed mark-up policy, rather than a percentage approach, then the more you spend the greater percentage of the cost goes towards the wine
  • The pricing of older wine needs to reflect the cost of tying up money for years. That said, restaurants can occasionally pick up small parcels of mature wine from growers or simply need to shift older stock. Either way you clearly need to enjoy mature wine.
  • Where a restaurant buys direct from growers then some will charge the restaurant a wholesale price, others a near retail price. Of course spotting these wines, assuming the restaurant isn’t profiteering, means happening to know their retail price and that the wine is good value in the first place.
  • Buying a bottle and taking home what you don’t drink is often better value than a half bottle, plus the chances are the wine will be in better condition.
Coming soon, the Languedoc list that all others are compared to.


  1. Lots of interesting thoughts, Graham, and lots of good advice too. Although I believe that restaurants in Languedoc should make a fairly decent profit on wine (as opposed to what I assume you mean by "profiteering") I am often disappointed at the very high mark-ups, which regularly seem to be 200-300% and often more. Its almost as bad as the UK!

  2. I just read this on another website. I don't know if you syndicate the feed elsewhere or if it was somebody else. But my comments are the same: Very interesting point. There's a lot to be said for restaurateurs who are passionate enough to deliver the same quality experience year round no matter what season it is. And they do have quite a wine selection to work with :D