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What makes a wine list? Elise Merigaud, La Dame de Pic

Published:  05 June, 2023

In our online series, Harpers is going back to basics with members of hospitality to find out exactly what is the secret sauce that makes a modern wine list successful.

We now head over to Elise Merigaud, head sommelier, La Dame de Pic at the Four Seasons Hotel London, Ten Trinity Square.

In your opinion, what are the three main things which make a good wine list in 2023?

Variety. Between the countries, we are in London, it’s an epicentre of the world’s wines. Of course, some restaurants will focus on more traditional regions or countries related to their food offering. However, you should be able to have a bit of everything else. I think as part of this category, we can also mention the non-alcoholic or low-in-alcohol beverage that can stand up to the restaurant’s gastronomy. 

Prices. Not every foodie or person that is going to a restaurant is a big wine lover and not all can afford or want to spend as much on beverage as they do on food. I think we should be able to offer all a chance to enjoy a good bottle of wine adapted to their budget. Wines have become almost a luxury with all the prices going up crazy and all those extra cost from the shipment, to the taxes, to the price of the glass bottle and the climate difficulties making some wines rarer. 

Readability. Some wine lists can be very tight in term of spacing; they make it hard to go through and make a choice harder. I know some wine lists are worldwide references, but I believe new generations of wine drinkers like a simpler wine list and shorter references so they don’t have to find themselves with three hours of reading and four kilos on the knees.

Wine lists are essentially the supermarket aisles of a restaurant. In your opinion, what is the best way to approach organisation and design? How do diners ‘browse’? Are there any elements of psychology which should be considered and how should lists facilitate that?

That would depend on the type of guests you have. Being in a luxury 5-star hotel within a 2 Michelin star restaurant, I think people are still browsing and looking for a country or a style of wine (eg. white France Burgundy; red Italy Piedmont). However, our neighbour restaurant, Mei Ume, which has more of a casual style, has started to sort the wines reflecting a description (light-bodied and crisp; medium and aromatic; etc) because that is what the guests are looking for. 

If you compare an East London wine list to a Central London one, you’ll find the complete opposite way of considering the list. For example, I recently went to the Ritz, which has a ‘Bible’, geographically organised with many references; the week after, I visited Casa Fofo where the list is a piece of paper with short references. Though, they obviously do not target the same guests. 

What are the ‘must include’ categories or sections and what are optional? Must certain categories / styles go in certain places?

Talking about the Central London places and luxury hotels, all lists must have a wide section in red and white Burgundy; red Bordeaux; red Italian and a good Californian selection because this is still what people are after. Optional would be the Balkans wines, which are not sought after by this clientele even though they are making some real gems. Plus a good Champagne selection and a few sparkling references. We should start seeing more and more English wines too.

And if you head your way to East London, definitely a good section on orange wines and biodynamique!

How have wine lists changed over the past few years, particularly with regard to Covid (have they shrunk / expanded, changed category focus etc)?

Mostly, they have shrunk, because people don’t necessarily want to spend hours choosing their wines. But also, because some wines are very hard to get, have become very expensive and you now have to be the fastest with the largest wallet if you want to be able to offer an extensive wine menu.

I also think some places are playing smart in discovering and offering the next ‘what's good to drink wine’, looking for quality and value; and it’s working in my opinion. For some categories of restaurant, and since the Covid crisis and the current global one, the key is value for money.