If you thought last year’s Wine List of the Year competition was tough, it was a breeze compared to 2011. Not only were there way more entries, at well over 200, but the standard was significantly higher, meaning a much slower judging process, complete with more discussion than Prime Minister’s Question Time.
Unsurprisingly, judges in the final round had a larger shortlist to consider – 35 lists as opposed to 26 in 2010.* Which perhaps explains why there were six overall awards this year, against five last year; plus the new Sommelier’s Award created this year.
There were also a couple of lists that did one or two things exceptionally well (or differently), but overall weren’t quite up to the standard necessary to win one of the final awards. These were recognised with a Chairman’s Award.
All in all, this was a hard-fought, vibrant competition; one where the judges really had to work hard to keep the number of awards down. It means that the winners on the pages that follow truly deserve respect and recognition for their excellence.
What, then, were the criteria used to judge the lists?
Imagination – wines chosen and how they were presented.
Drinkability – the wines listed had to be drinking well now.
Accuracy – both of spelling and the way wines were laid out.
Innovation – this wasn’t essential, but a willingness to do things differently usually went down well.
Personality – lists with character were always more popular than ones that were just lists of wines.
User-friendliness – was the wine list easy (and intuitive) to navigate? Did it help customers make a decision on the wines or whet their appetites in some way?
All of the shortlisted contenders had already scored highly in the six categories mentioned above. But the overall winners often had something extra – a couple of stand-out elements that lifted the overall list from beyond ‘very good’ and into ‘special’, or an overall indefinable ‘something’ that simply caught the judges’ imaginations.
And it wasn’t just about putting in a huge amount of effort. All shortlisted candidates had clearly worked long and hard on their entries. It was sometimes about knowing when to step back a bit from a list and realise that a labour of love should in no way obscure clarity of thought.
Anyway, enjoy the winners overleaf and join the Imbibe team in raising a glass to all their hard work!
For a list of all finalists see imbibe.com/article/top-of-the-list
Coq d’Argent London
If the winner of last year’s award was deserved but controversial (the Chinese restaurant HK House in Gloucestershire, beating off Michelin-starred competitors), then top spot in this year’s competition gave us more of the same. Not so much because of the winners themselves, but because this time there are two of them.
The judges finally managed to narrow the contenders down to Hakkasan and Coq d’Argent, but after 20 minutes of discussion were completely unable to separate them. ‘I could spend five minutes arguing why Hakkasan should win, then turn round and do exactly the same for Coq d’Argent,’ said Hamish Anderson, summing it up nicely. ‘They are just both absolutely brilliant lists.’
Brilliant, yes, and yet also quite different. Coq d’Argent’s list is fairly traditional in the way it is laid out, with wines separated by country and then by region within that. But what sets it apart from similarly-structured competitors is the even-handed way in which it treats every country equally. It’s not just the A-list appellations of France that are clearly subdivided, but those of the New World too.
The by-the-glass selection is large and fairly priced, and the six wine flights are a nice touch; the overall look is clear, elegant and uncluttered, but the nuggets of information that sommelier Oliver Marie chooses to dispense in his ‘Did You Know?’ panels are unfailingly to the point and undeniably noteworthy.
This being the City, there’s no shortage of expense-account busting bottles, and diners looking for £1,000+ bottles won’t be disappointed. But the beauty of this list is how it works for customers who are spending £50 a bottle as well as those spending £500+, managing to be subtly innovative and wine-driven (splitting up Right Bank Bordeaux by soil-type, for instance, is something we hadn’t seen before) without ever being slow-moving.
‘It’s traditional in layout, but done really well, and a lot more interesting than most,’ praised Gearoid Devaney MS.
Hakkasan’s list was another that made the shortlist last year, but missed out in the final round. No such problems this year. Judges heaped praise on what must be one of the country’s most groundbreaking lists.
The wines are not split up by country, or even stylistic category, but by utterly unique sections selected by buyer Christine Parkinson such as ‘Blends – the art of the winemaker’ (varietal blends);
‘I could spend five minutes arguing why Hakkasan should win, then do the same for Coq d’Argent’ Hamish Anderson
‘Purity: the expression of the fruit’ (unoaked wines); ‘Classic – fine wines with history’ (Bordeaux, Burgundy etc) and ‘Genius without a Château’ (new classics).
‘I’m a fan of how this has been broken up,’ said Peter McCombie MW. ‘It gets you to look at wine in a different way.’ The presentation is clear, elegant, simple and easy to follow. The list is tightly focused and put together with a clearheaded unsentimentality, as well as love. And while there might be a fair few blingy bottles, for a Michelin-starred restaurant, the vast majority of wines are highly affordable.
Since it is so different, the list places a high premium on its sommelier team’s ability to talk intelligently about the contents and, as Hakkasan’s Wine List of the Year application made clear, the paper offering is supported by intensive staff training and tasting.
‘A list like this needs to be backed up by the staff, and this one is,’ said Anderson. ‘But this hasn’t just won because it’s innovative – it’s a really great list.’
Le Pont de la Tour London
There was some strong competition in here this year, with no shortage of lists stuffed full of big-name grande marques, verticals focusing on key producers and multiple formats. But what separated Le Pont de la Tour from its nearest contenders – the cheerful enthusiasm of the champagne bar Epernay in Leeds and the elegance of The Savoy in London – was its willingness to go beyond big names.
The likes of Roederer, Billecart-Salmon, Tattinger and Pol Roger were there – it would be impossible to construct a balanced champagne offering without them. But there was also an atypically large number of grower champagnes – maybe half the total – which suggests that sommelier Nicolas Clerc MS is really trying to go the extra mile.
Put simply, there wasn’t one ‘lazy’ listing – every bottle, whether grande marque or small grower, was clearly there on merit, even if that meant a bit of hand-selling on the part of Clerc and his team.
‘I ran out of breath reading it,’ said Devaney. ‘There are lots of different styles and vintages, with small growers and grande marques – all of them well chosen. It’s a fantastic representation of what’s available in the region.’
And it was this energy and imagination, rather than sheer size or ‘bling’, factor that saw it take top spot.
The Gurnard’s Head ST IVES
Edmund Inkin, director of The Gurnard’s Head in St Ives, describes wine as being ‘a critical part of what we offer… something we take very seriously’. And that care and attention certainly shows in the wine list.
It’s about 100 bins – 20 by the glass or carafe, 35 reds, 35 whites and about a dozen fizzes and fortifieds. A perfect, easily navigable example, with neither fat nor unnecessary indulgence, yet plenty of carefully-selected, interesting listings.
The judges liked the fact that all the by-the-glass wines came with a short, enthusiastic tasting note that captured the wine’s essence quickly and then stopped. There were no 100-word rambles or ‘wannabe writer’ essays, yet the brief 10-word notes were fabulously helpful. ‘Achingly good Beaujolais with backbone’, ‘Cabernet Franc as you’ve never had it before’… simple, inspirational and SHORT – which is something a lot of restaurants could learn from.
The bottle-only whites and reds were listed by region or country, which was traditional rather than exciting. But again, it was very clear and, with each wine colour managing to fit on one page, it was very, very easy to navigate.The fact that the prices didn’t simply go in ascending order would encourage punters to really read the contents and showed, once again, that every element of this list has been carefully thought out.
With eight merchants (including good, smaller suppliers such as Vine Trail, Astrum Wine Cellars and Raymond Reynolds) this is a great example of just what pubs who are serious about their wine offering should aspire to.
These were handed out to entries that narrowly missed out on a full List of the Year award, but had elements that the judges really liked, so couldn’t bear to see them go away empty-handed
63 Tay Street, Perth
This list boasts a terrific selection of German wines as well as a good half-bottle selection, but what our judges were most taken with was the food and wine matching grid at the start of the list. It doesn’t look especially pretty, but it’s very user-friendly and encourages the customers to try something different. Genuine innovation from a small eatery. Had there been a bit more of this kind of energy in the presentation on the rest of the list, this could have picked up a top spot.
The Bon Vivant, Edinburgh
This by-the-glass champagne selection had our London-based sommeliers cooing with approval – and turning green with envy at the prices (Roederer at £7 a glass, anyone?). Every listing at this wine bar is available by the glass or carafe, and the presentation is a model of clarity. A bit more of a willingness to push the boundaries in the wines selected (and perhaps enlarging the number of suppliers used) and it would surely have won a top award.
As bustling and energetic as the nearby Kings Cross station, Rotunda’s list is an awful lot of fun. It’s easy to get through, well presented, and the tasting notes are, at times, works of genius – informative, pithy, irreverent and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. All in all, this list represented a terrific effort, and it was only narrowly squeezed out of winning a full award. So our judges decided to acknowledge it with a Chairman’s Award instead.
The Harwood Arms London
Describing The Harwood Arms as a ‘pub’ is a bit like saying the Queen lives in a big house. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s not exactly the full story either. This Fulham ‘pub’ was refurbished three years ago, and has since fulfilled its intention of being a ‘neighbourhood pub with a great offering of food and drink’. So much so, that it’s now got a Michelin star.
As you might expect, the wine list is closer to restaurant than pub territory since it ain’t the Dog & Duck on the high street. And since our judges loved it and felt it deserved recognition, but didn’t feel it could realistically be judged alongside more traditional pubs (such as the winner above), they created a special category for it.
Wines at the Harwood Arms are split up fairly traditionally by country (though our judges liked the grouping of Oz, NZ and South Africa together as the Tri-Nations). With (mostly) wealthy locals and a Michelin star behind it, there’s no surprise that the wines in each section climb fairly rapidly above £50, but the list deserves credit for giving good descriptions of every single wine irrespective of price. And at 110 bins, it’s still well focused.
Sure, there aren’t many pubs that could put on DP Rose (£500) or Sassicaia 1996 (£275) and get away with it, but the majority of this list is £40-£60 – serious, but not over-inflated.
The tasters really liked the ‘Seasonal Wine Specials’ at the front, and thought that the selection of 30 wines by the glass (including half a dozen excellent Lustau sherries) was also a nice touch.
‘The wines are well-chosen, with nice tasting notes that aren’t too long,’ said Devaney. ‘Well laid-out, it’s a good, solid list, where it’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the selections. There are some really good fine wines, too.’
It can’t hurt that Albertine is near the thirsty employees of the BBC in west London, but the fact that it’s been around for more than 30 years must be due to more than mere location. And a quick glance at the list bears this out.
Frankly, this is all you could ever want from a wine bar list. It’s not intimidatingly long, but it covers pretty much every style of wine you could wish for, with a huge number of wines under £30 and getting on for 90 wines available by-the-glass.
‘It’s a massive selection, with loads of good things by the glass,’ praised Devaney.
Every wine has a tasting note, but owner Giles Philips has been careful to ensure that they are short and helpful, rather than self-indulgent and unfocused. And there are also nuggets of information for the serious wine lover – without ever alienating the first-timer; not an easy trick to pull off.
The 30-bin fine wine section is compact, but still covers all the bases, with a few neatly-selected New World additions, and the prices are, once again, remarkably good.
‘There are a lot of really good wines here that you can drink without food, all at really good price points,’ said Anderson
The Cross at Kingussie Inverness
A fair few of the wine lists sent in for the Wine List of the Year competition are real labours of love – but it’s hard to think of any that have combined imagination, quirkiness, information and sheer joie de vivre in such large quantities as David Young’s list from The Cross at Kingussie in Inverness.
Shortlisted last year, it went one better this year, with our judges chuckling happily at what they found. There are very few wines here above £50 (‘we’re clear about what our customers are prepared to spend,’ says Young) but this list has scoured the world in search of value and interest at the more affordable end of the wine list. And, let’s face it, wherever you are, this is where the vast majority of customers do their choosing!
‘There’s a lot of enthusiasm here, somebody has obviously put a lot of love into it’ Peter McCombie MW (on The Cross at Kingussie)
Using a laudable 14 suppliers, the large selection of 190 wines, plus 35 halves, 40+ dessert wines and a majestic selection of whisky would be impressive at a 100-cover white tablecloth eatery. It’s all the more remarkable at a place that seats only 24 people.
Yet it was more than the sheer choice of wines on offer that saw The Cross take an award this year. It was the attempts to engage with the customer: exuberant tasting notes, boxed-out musings on organic versus biodynamic, the witty use of symbols (an ambulance for wines with high alcohol, bagpipes for wines with a ‘Scottish connection’) that won over the judges. ‘There’s a lot of enthusiasm here,’ said McCombie. ‘Somebody has obviously put a lot of love into it.’
Certainly, if more wine lists showed this much enthusiasm, wit and energy, the on-trade would be a better place.
‘There’s a lot of wine here for an eight-bedroomed restaurant that seats 24 people,’ said Anderson. ‘And I loved the bagpipes!’