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Grape expectations: Wine list

Dining out in company I'm invariably handed the wine list and asked to select appropriate partners for the food guests have chosen, which can run the whole gamut, from rare venison to well-done tofu.

My advice to anyone lumbered with this task is to shed your inhibitions and go for it. Be prepared to defend your choices to the death or at least counter the inevitable begrudger with a snarling, "Well, you can bloody pick them next time".

The perfect wine list would offer a global selection unless the restaurant majors on the food of a specific region -- any establishment purporting to be Italian really shouldn't sell French, Chilean or Australian wines.

The exemplary wine list should offer: 25-30 wines with as much emphasis placed on the cheaper as on more upmarket offerings; a selection of half bottles and a choice of decent wines by the glass or carafe; details of each wine's origin, producer and vintage, as well as informative tasting notes, no back-label bulls**t. Truly stellar wine lists will have 'vintage depth', too, ie they'll be able to offer you a choice of vintages. "Would you like the 2000, big and voluptuous, or the 2001, lean and elegant?" is the kind of phrase that's music to my ears.

Less than satisfactory wine lists can be divided into 'Quirky', 'Safe', 'Brand-lumbered', 'Apathetic' and 'War and Peace'. 'Quirky' lists are compiled by misguided restaurateurs, the kind who go on holiday year-after-year to the same sun spot and bring back the local wines. Choosing wines in their restaurant is tantamount to playing "vinous roulette".

'Safe' lists are mapped by indolent proprietors. These guys call up a major supplier whose representative comes and constructs a list entirely from his company's portfolio. Boring!

The 'Brand-lumbered' list is an even safer version of 'Safe': "Give 'em something they're used to" is the mantra. All the usual suspects will be listed. Nothing wrong with any of these wines but their appearance en masse indicates a lazy "four-out-of-ten, must try harder" approach.

The 'Apathetic' list contains a mere dozen wines, five red, five white, all dogs plus a couple of mongrel sparklers. There's a danger that apathy spills over into the food, so make your excuses and leave.

Finally, there's the 'War and Peace' list. You'll be handed a leather-bound tome the size of a family bible. It's an odds-on bet that many vintages listed will not tally with the ones in stock; worse, a good number of the wines won't be available at all. Spare your eyesight; ask the sommelier for a recommendation. Give a price limit.

Of course, the best wine list in the world is useless without professional support. Take a look around. Glasses should be of good quality and spotlessly clean. There should be someone who knows about wines, whether sommelier or waiter, in evidence. Uncorking and decanting should be done without spilling of wine or blood. Keep your ears open; other guests may be vocal if a wine is too warm, too cool or just plain crap.

Finally, do your homework. Many restaurants publish the wine list on their website allowing you to assess their seriousness and desire to give value.

By the time you're reading this I'll be in Puglia, Southern Italy, an up-and-coming wine region I've not yet visited. Meanwhile, here's a lovely Puglian red (currently 'on special' for €12.99, O'Brien's) to whet your appetite. Tasty Punta Aquila 2007 (left) comes loaded with dark, opulent plums and a hint of black pepper and spice on the back palate. Good balancing acidity stops it from being flabby as is often the case with the primitivo grape.


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