Demystifying the Wine Menu

Tips to help you better understand a Wine Menu

For those of you who are overwhelmed by a wine menu (about 99% of you), I have put together a short piece on how to navigate a typical wine list. I hope that you find it helpful.

Firstly, stop reading the list right to left. Although price is, of course, an element of your decision to chose a wine, it does not necessarily reflect the quality of a wine. Prices are generally determined by production levels and/or popularity and therefore can be misleading.

Basic Labeling Facts:

New World wines are basically wines from anywhere outside of Europe. Therefore, Old World wines are from Europe.

New World wines generally mention on the bottle label the type of grape(s) used (Cabernet Sauvignon, for example), the region from which the wine originates, the vintage of the wine and the name of the winemaker. The Vineyard will be mentioned only if it’s a single vineyard.

Old World wines (except the Alsace) will, to the contrary, not mention the types of grape(s) used for a particular wine, although changes to the labeling rules are being introduced whereby, in some cases, the varietal will be stated on the label. In the Old World, you were historically expected to know the grape varietals by virtue of the type of wine that you chose. Similar to the New World, Old World wine labels do include the region, the winery, the vineyard, the winemaker and the vintage.

A single vineyard (i.e Beckstoffer, To Kalon, Richebourg, Charlemagne, etc) mean that the grapes inside the bottle are unique to that vineyard. There is always a premium on single vineyard wines because of the quality control that can be imposed by a winemaker, especially if the acreage is very low.

All other bottles (those that are not from a single vineyard) may contain grapes from multiple vineyards, including grapes that are not grown by a particular winemaker.

Wine Varietals and Regions:

Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz), Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer are all examples of grape varietals (types of grapes).

Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sancerre, Barolo, Chianti, Brunello di Montelcino, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Champagne, Cote-Rotie, on the other hand, are all Old World wine regions which are identified with particular types of varietals. If you are drinking a red Burgundy, for example, you are drinking 100% Pinot Noir, unless, of course, you are drinking Beaujolais (Yes this is Burgundian wine!) which is 100% Gamay.

If you are drinking a white Burgundy, on the other hand, you are drinking 100% Chardonnay. Chablis is also a Burgundy, and also 100% Chardonnay. A comment I once heard when serving a Chardonnay was “I hate Chardonnay, my favorite wine is Mersault” (White) Mersault is a region in Burgundy and is 100% Chardonnay. This comment demonstrates the difficulty of recognizing varietals used to make Old World wines unless you have some basic wine knowledge.

Left Bank Bordeaux, which includes St Estephe, St Julien, Margaux and other regions in the Medoc region of France, are blends whose predominant grape is Cabernet Sauvignon. The rest of the blend will be made up of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Right Bank Bordeaux, which includes, St Emillion and Pomerol are blends whose predominant grape is Merlot. These wines will be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. If you are not a lover of Merlot but love Chateau Petrus (A Bordeaux from the right bank), you may wish to revisit Merlot!

Northern Rhone red wines like Cote-Rotie, St Joseph and Hermitage are Syrah grape based wines. Southern Rhone wines like Chateauneauf-du-Pape, Cotes-du-Rhone, and Gigondas are Grenache grape based wines.

Sancerre is made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.

If you are drinking Italian wines from Barolo or Barbaresco, you are drinking the highly tannic grape Nebbiolo. Chianti and Brunello di Montelcino are made from the Sangiovese grape.

Rioja from Spain is made from the Tempranillo grape.


Champagne, similarly, is a region in France, and only wines produced in that region are entitled to use that name on their labels. Sparkling wines from other parts of the world, however, can confirm that they use the same winemaking techniques by using the phrase “Champagne method” (or another similar descriptive term) on their bottle.

It is a little known fact that there are three types of grapes that can be used in Champagne, one white and, surprisingly, two red. The white grape is Chardonnay and the reds are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. For non-rose Champagnes, the red grapes are pressed off the skins.

Not all Champagnes, however, use red grapes. A Blanc de Blancs Champagne is 100% Chardonnay. A Blanc de Noirs Champagne is made up of the red grapes referred to above.

A vintage Champagne is only made in exceptional years where there have been perfect vintage conditions and harvest. Typically 3 times per decade. Otherwise, a typical Champagne will use grapes from multiple vintages.

Other Suggestions on wine selection:

When presented with a bottle of wine at a restaurant, make sure the wine is at your desired temperature. I recommend 55 degrees for lighter reds (i.e. Pinot Noir) and 58 degrees for Cabernet Sauvignon and heavier reds. If you see wines stored at room temperature or if the bottle feels warm, do not hesitate to ask your server to cool the wine over ice for a few minutes. Many restaurants do not have adequate storage space, and it takes away from the enjoyment if a wine is served too warm.

Double check the vintage (year) - If a restaurant has run out of the stated vintage on the menu, they may substitute with a newer one. A good server will tell you this when presenting the bottle of wine. Vintages can make a big difference.

Winemaking techniques have advanced so much over the past decade that you will be wise to choose a wine from this era (2000 onward). I would advise you only to purchase old vintage Bordeaux, Burgundy or other aged wines if you truly know those vintages and have good advice from a Sommelier.

Most wine experts that I know do not feel the need to spend more than $100 to get a nice bottle of wine, even at a very nice restaurant, although for the right occasion and for a very special bottle of wine you may need to splurge.

As a general rule, the great vintages in most of Europe are 2003, 2005 and 2009.

In the US 2007, 2008 and 2009 were all exceptional. 2012 looks to be another great vintage, although we will not know for sure until these wines are released.

Sommeliers, like all experts, love to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their guests. My advise is to let the Sommelier know what you enjoy drinking, point to a price range on the menu, ask lots of questions and you will have a very positive wine experience.

If you do not enjoy the banter with a Sommelier, keep in mind that one of the services that I offer is an advance review of a wine list before you head out to a restaurant. If you send me the name of the restaurant where you will be dining, I will look up the wine list and recommended an assortment of wine choices within your budget.