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Austin's best wine lists — and the wine experts behind them

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Congress Restaurant Austin wine list
Congress' wine list is best explored through a wine pairing alongside dinner. Courtesy of Congress / Facebook
Qui rose
Qui's wine list focuses on seasonal offerings. Courtesy of Qui / Facebook
Congress Restaurant Austin wine list
Qui rose

Not all wine lists are created equal. For some restaurants, it’s about covering the basics and making sure there’s a wine available for everyone to enjoy. For other restaurants, it’s about exposing diners to a new and unique selection of wines that are both approachable and even affordable. The best wine lists in Austin offer a balance between the two, and we have a finely honed selection of restaurants, as well as the wine experts who created them.

Arro: Craig Collins
At Arro, the only wines you’ll find are French. To help assist you in narrowing down a selection without having to know the French language, all of the wines are organized by grape variety. Instead of having to know what type of wine comes from Chablis, Chinon or the Southern Rhone, you can select Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, or Grenache. Though the wine list changes daily to shepherd through a variety of Franco-friendly wines, Arro’s Executive Beverage Director Craig Collins makes a point to source a list that is true to the grape and region of origin, food-friendly, and brimming with options that guests will find, as he calls it, “gluggable.”

Take note of the “Wine of the Moment,” penned at the top of the menu, a special pick offered at a value price by the glass. During the week, Collins usually offers something from a grape or region that most people may not be familiar with as a chance to try something new. On the weekends, it’s wine by the glass that may have a little more pedigree such as a Grand Cru Burgundy.

Menu favorites:
Domaine Weinbach "Cuvee Theo" Riesling 2010 (Alsace)
Gros-Tollot "La Ciaude" Minervous Grenache/Syrah 2010 (Languedoc Roussillon)

Bufalina: Steven Dilley
Known for its serious Neopolitan-style pizzas, one look at the wine list and you can easily surmise that Bufalina is also serious about wine. The long and varying list far outweighs the restaurant’s limited food menu. But, as owner Steven Dilley sees it, it just gives you more options. With more than a decade spent in New York in finance career, Dilley returned to his home state of Texas to open a classic Italian pizzeria. One thing he knew he’d miss about New York was easy accessibility to global wines, a personal passion of his.

When he opened Bufalina, Dilley was determined to help remedy that challenge in Austin. You’ll find wines that, quite simply, he likes to drink. They’re food-friendly and balanced with fruit and acidity. (This is not the place to go if you’re looking for oaky Chardonnay or jammy Zinfandel.) According to Dilley, if the wine is interesting and delicious, he’ll add it to the menu. His goal is to show his care for the provenance of his wine list as he does the ingredients used in his food.

Menu favorites:
Domaine Valette Pouilly Vinzelles 2009 (White Burgundy)
Wind Gap Syrah 2009 (Sonoma Coast)

Congress: Paula Rester
When it comes to classic fine dining in Austin, it’s hard to beat Congress' elegant food, atmosphere and service. And the wine list is just as special. It’s one of the longer lists you’ll see in town — you could easily finish an appetizer while glancing through the multi-paged book — it’s also one of the most distinguished. Sommelier Paula Rester manages the wine selections at both Congress and adjoining restaurant 2nd Bar and Kitchen. She does her best to provide a wide range of options to suit the different palates that circulate through the restaurant dining rooms.

You can certainly find a bottle or two perfect for whatever the occasion may be, the best way to appreciate her skill at pairing the perfect wine to your meal is to take advantage of the wine paired with the restaurant’s seven-course menu. This not only gives you a chance to taste what really works best with each dish, but you just may stumble upon something you’ve never tried before, which is really the best part of exploring wines. Though the extra wine pairing usually costs about $70 more, it’s a fraction of what you’d spend to taste this range of wines in one evening if you were ordering off the menu.

Menu favorites:
Chateau de l’Eperonniere Croix Picot Savennieres 2010 (Loire, France)
S.A. La Rioja Alta Vina Alberdi Rioja Reserva 2006 (Rioja, Spain)

Qui: June Rodil
There's a matrix that general manager and sommelier June Rodil puzzles through when compiling a wine list — but she’ll admit, it’s an equation that goes completely out the window if something fabulous comes her way. For Rodil, a wine's top job is to highlight the food. And when it comes to food from Chef Paul Qui, it’s usually seasonal in addition to being provocatively inventive.

To keep it simple, Rodil sticks to seasons for the wine list as well. For instance, hot summer days call for Riesling and Rosé! Cost also comes into play. The Qui wine list ultimately seeks to balance unique selection with value in proportion to the food offered on the menu.

Menu favorites:
Chateau Senejac Bordeaux
Kiralyudvar Furmint Sec

Red Room Lounge: Alex Andrawes and Nathan Prater
Walking into the Red Room Lounge is sort of like stepping into an old speakeasy during Prohibition. You won’t find a brassy jazz band or a crowded dance floor, but you will find a low-key vibe and a handsome wine selection. RRL functions as both a retail stop as well as a laid-back space for experts and novices alike to dive into the world of wine. If you’re just stopping in for a glass or two, let sommelier Nathan Prater help you pick from the evolving by-the-glass wine list. If you’re looking to stay a while, you can choose from the few dozen wines lined up along the back wall, or dig deeper into Red Room’s cellar list of more than 700 wines. This is where you’ll find a dizzying array of wines from all over the world.

The cellar, which was developed by owner Alex Andrawes is designed to offer a diversity in selections from classic regions to new and revitalized parts of the world, all at low-, mid- and high-price ranges to suit any taste and budget. In short, the Red Room Lounge is where you can dive as deep as you care to expand your wine knowledge. While the Red Room doesn’t serve food, you’re welcome to bring your own items to nosh on.

Menu favorites:
Domaine Collin Cremant d'Limoux Rose brut (Sparkling rosé)
Mont Laur "Excellence" Cahors, 2011 (French Malbec)

Swift’s Attic: Sam Hovland
Coming up with the perfect wine list for the creative culinary team behind Swift’s Attic (Mat Clouser, Zack Northcutt and Callie Speer) was a challenge meant for just the right person. Sam Hovland, a long-respected wine consultant in the Austin area as well as wine buyer for East End Wines, was just the guy. The list was initially centered around old world, European-style wines with bright acidity and minerality, less alcohol and less tannin. According to Hovland, the first list only had Chardonnay if it was involved in a sparkling wine, and topped out at Cabernet Franc for reds, with no Cabernet Sauvignons.

As the restaurant has evolved, the wine list has grown to include selections from other parts of the world that still fit within the flavor and structure profiles originally defined when the restaurant opened. What you notice while enjoying a meal at Swift’s Attic is that the food and wine play well off of each other, regardless of what it is.

Menu favorites:
Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco 2011 (Trentino - Alto Adige, Italy)
Left Coast Cali’s Cuvee 2011 (Pinot Noir) (Rickreall, Willamette Valley, OR)

Uchi and Uchiko: Dhal Smith
Most people think of sake when they think of sushi. And beer often takes a close second. Both make a great complement to the delicate ingredients and complex flavors served at both Uchi and Uchiko. But it’s important not to forget how great wine can be with Japanese-inspired cuisine as well. Beverage director Dhal Smith recently made a few changes to the wine menus at both restaurants offering both versatility in flavors — from bitter, to sweet, to savory — as well as body and style. You’ll find a range of crisp white wines and robust red wines, but they’ll all present a fine balance between fruitiness and earthiness.

Menu favorites:
Livio Felluga Friulano 2011 (White wine, Friuli, Italy)
Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitages 2011 (Red wine, Northern Rhone, France)

Winebelly: Ryan Fulmer
A fantastic addition to South Austin, Winebelly is the quintessential neighborhood wine bar featuring a Spanish-inspired menu of snacks, tapas and main dishes as well as a meticulously thought-out wine menu. (Oh, and parking’s a breeze in the adjacent lot.) General Manager Ryan Fulmer has seen his way around top Austin restaurants from the Bitter End to Uncle Billy’s Brew and Cue, and has taken special care with Winebelly to pursue a casual list of unique wines that not only suit the menu, but also the budget. Best of all, you’ll find the most bang for your buck on Sundays and Mondays when the restaurant offers select bottles of wine at half price.

Menu favorites:
Marius Terret & Vermentino by Michel Chapoutier 2011
McPherson Cellars Albarino 2012

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