Create a Successful Wine List for Your Restaurant

Create a Successful Wine List

If you don’t already have a curated wine menu, you should consider adding one today. Restaurants have approximately a 70% profit margin on wine. But wine lists aren’t just about selling alcohol, they can also help tie your entire menu together. Pairing the right wine with a dish can elevate your meal to a whole new level. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a sommelier to create a successful wine list, you just need to know the basics. We’ll help teach you how to create a wine list from the most popular wines and what to pair them with, to pricing, markups, and best practices.

Wine Flavor Profiles

Let’s start off with the basics. You can’t describe your wine selection to customers without knowing the vocab first!

Images of a lemon, a dancer, an apple, a bag of sugar, and grapes. Underneath reads "Acid, Body, Fruit, Sugar, Tannins"

Acid

Think of how your mouth puckers when you drink lemonade – that’s a reaction to the acidity. Acidity in wine is the degree of tartness, but you may often hear acidic wines being described as “crisp.”

Body

Body refers to the texture and weight of wine as you take a sip. Also called mouthfeel, body is affected by the different components of wine. Alcohol level, tannins, sugar content, and acidity all play a part when perceiving body. Noticing the difference should be similar to the difference between skim and whole milk.

Light bodied wines will generally have a lower alcohol content and a higher acidity. Red wines in this category may be described as delicate and subtle, while light bodied white wines may be crisp and zesty.

On the other end of the spectrum, full bodied wines are heavier due to the higher alcohol content. Bold, tannic reds and rich, buttery whites will fall into this category.

Fruit

This one may seem straightforward but it’s actually not! Most wines only use grapes in the fermentation process but can still give off notes of other fruits. How is this possible? Interestingly, grapes release chemical properties that are also found in other fruits.

Fruit flavors often found in white wines will be citrusy, tropical, or floral. Red wines have more herbal notes along with flavors of red and black fruits.

Sweet

There are three categories of sweetness that a wine can fall under: sweet, semi-dry (sometimes called “off-dry), and dry. Both red and white wines can fall under any level of sweetness, but red wines will tend to be more dry while white wines generally provide more sweetness.

Dry wines have had all grape sugar converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Sweet wines, on the other hand, have what’s known as “residual sugar.” A semi-dry wine has a very soft sweetness that isn’t too overpowering.

Tannins

A tannin is a naturally occurring compound in grape skins, stems, and seeds. Wines with higher tannins will be more bitter and astringent. White wines are made from white grapes with the skin separated from the juice before fermentation. Conversely, red wines are made from black grapes with the skins still intact during fermentation. The higher contact of grape skins in the process of making red wine gives these wines a higher level of tannins and are therefore more bitter than white wines which have low to no tannins.

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Most Popular Wines & How to Pair Them

When suggesting a wine to go with someone’s food order, there are a few key things to keep in mind for balance:

  • For spicy food, a sweet wine will provide a great balance on the palate
  • Wines should always be sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the wine will taste sour
  • Higher acidity wines pair well with a salty or fatty dish

But to create your wine list, you need to decide on the actual types of wine you want to add. If you specialize in a specific cuisine, you may want to supplement your menu with wines from the same region. Otherwise, it’s probably best to stick to the fan favorites among the general public.

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignons are bold red wines with black and red fruit flavors. Highly acidic, these wines are perfect for cutting through fatty foods. Try to stay away from pairing with lighter dishes as the boldness of a Cab Sav will overwhelm those flavors.

  • Acidity: High
  • Body: Full bodied
  • Fruit: Black cherry, blackberry, black currant
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Tannins: High

Cabernet Sauvignon Pairing Recommendation: Steak and other red meats, mushrooms, charcuterie

Merlot

Merlot is lower in acidity and tannins, making this a somewhat softer red wine than a Cabernet. There are flavors of dark fruits such as black cherry and blackberry but a Merlot tends to be a bit fruitier. Herbal and vanilla undertones give a layer of warmth.

  • Acidity: Medium
  • Body: Medium to full
  • Fruit: Black cherry, blackberry, plum, raspberry
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Tannins: Low

Merlot Pairing Recommendation: Red meat, poultry, veggies – especially mushrooms

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir has a silky finish with cherry and raspberry flavors and earthy undertones. Although dry, you may detect notes of sweetness as the process of making a Pinot Noir leaves behind a little residual sugar.

  • Acidity: High
  • Body: Light to medium
  • Fruit: Cherry, raspberry
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Tannins: Medium low

Pinot Noir Pairing Recommendations: Pork, salmon, and root vegetables

Malbec

Fruit and smooth, a Malbec has a shorter finish, or aftertaste, than a wine like Cabernet. This means it goes great with lean red meats but will be overwhelmed by fattier meats. Along with the jammy flavors of Malbec, you’ll also find notes of cocoa, coffee, and black leather.

  • Acidity: Medium-low
  • Body: Full bodied
  • Fruit: Red plum, blackberry
  • Sweetness: Semi-dry
  • Tannins: Medium

Malbec Pairing Recommendations: Lean red meat, chocolate, spicy dishes

White Wines

Chardonnay

A Chardonnay can be produced using multiple methods that can create very different finishes to the wine. When aged in oak, it takes on a rich, buttery taste. If you want a lighter and crispier Chardonnay, you’ll want to look for one aged in a different method, usually stainless steel.

  • Acidity: Medium
  • Body: Medium to full
  • Fruit: Yellow apple, starfruit, pineapple
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Tannins: Low or None

Chardonnay Pairing Recommendations: Poultry, shellfish, and mild, creamy cheeses

Sauvignon Blanc

Light and crisp, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the world’s most identifiable wines. The citrus and herbal notes of a Sauvignon Blanc make it a good pairing with lighter, herbaceous dishes.

  • Acidity: High
  • Body: Light to medium
  • Fruit: Gooseberry, green apple, peach
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Tannins: Low or None

Sauvignon Blanc Pairing Recommendations: Seafood, green vegetables, chicken

Riesling

A Riesling is a light, drinkable white wine with an ABV of under or around just 10%. Depending on the region, a Riesling can be more sweet or dry. Rieslings from Germany and California will be sweeter, while those from New York and France tend to be more dry.

  • Acidity: High
  • Body: Light
  • Fruit: Apple, peach, pear
  • Sweetness: Semi-dry
  • Tannins: Low or None

Riesling Pairing Recommendations: Spicy foods, cheese, seafood

Moscato

Moscato wines are made from the Muscat grape, believed to be the oldest varietal in the world! Because this grape is found in many places throughout the world, Moscato is very popular and also occurs in many styles: sparkling, semi-sparkling, still, pink, and red to name just a few. They do share similar characteristics, one being a unique floral aroma.

  • Acidity: Medium-High
  • Body: Light
  • Fruit: Lemon, orange, pear
  • Sweetness: Sweet
  • Tannins: Low or None

Moscato Pairing Recommendations: Fruits, desserts, cured meats, spicy foods – especially Asian cuisine

Behind the bar is where the magic happens. Make sure you have the right equipment to keep your drinks cool, produce enough ice, and more at burkett.com.

Wine Menu Pricing & Markups

Now that you know how to speak about wine and you’ve decided on the menu, it’s time to move on to the next step: selling! Here’s where we get into all the fun numbers.

Let’s rewind back to a note in the beginning: the margins on wine for restaurants is around 70%. Does that seem too good to be true? It’s not! It’s very common for restaurant and bar owners to markup a bottle of wine 200-300% over their retail cost. The exact numbers will depend on your business model.

High-end, fine dining restaurants will have a lot of flexibility with pricing. Their patrons show up expecting to pay a higher amount for their dining experience. Fast casual restaurants are likely to be limited with their markups as their customers will not want to buy a $50 bottle of wine with their $20 meals.

Serving: By the Glass vs. By the Bottle

Next, you’ll need to decide how you are selling these wines. Are you offering them all both by the glass and by the bottle? If you’re selling wines by the glass, make sure those wines will be big sellers. This will reduce the risk of an open bottle going bad and a loss of your profits.

Stock the Proper Tools

Lastly, your bar or restaurant is going to need the correct tools to serve your new wine menu. Obviously, a corkscrew is the number one necessity. While screw tops are becoming more common in the wine industry, the classic cork will never go away.

For serving wines by the bottle, keeping the wine at the proper serving temperature is crucial. Invest in a wine bucket so your customers’ Chardonnays and Rieslings don’t become warm.

Are you now ready to create your own wine list? We sure hope so! Comment your favorite wines you serve at your restaurant below!