Every one of this year’s finalists joined Imbibe and Champagne Louis Roederer last night for the Wine List of the Year 2012 awards ceremony. Magnums of Louis Roederer and delicious canapés flowed at Mayfair’s Novikov and our finalists held their collective breath. Read on for a full list of the 2012 winners…
As any parent or gardener will tell you, it’s always satisfying to watch things grow. And this year’s Imbibe Wine List of the Year wasn’t just 30% bigger than either of the previous two years, it was also, crucially, more rigorous.
This year, when drawing up the shortlist, we got our teams of judges to score every list against six key criteria – accuracy, aesthetic appeal/creativity, clarity/ease of navigation, quality of wine, relevance to market and value for money.
This gave every list a quantifiable overall score out of 100, complete with comments from our panel. And since each list was judged by two, or more usually three, experienced sommeliers or wine buyers, it meant that all of the entries got a fair hearing – and plenty
of useful feedback, should they want it. Not that it was easy. Of the several hundred lists submitted, only around 15% made the shortlist (published in the July/August issue of Imbibe).
For the final stage of judging, these lists were then pre-sorted into rough geographical and stylistic categories (inside London/outside London, hotels/bars/white-tablecloth restaurants etc) to ensure that all the contenders were being judged against their peers.
As in previous years, our panel was not under pressure to give awards in areas where it didn’t feel any lists came up to scratch. Rather, the awards were matched to fit what the judges felt were the stand-out lists.
The standard this year was impressive. But there were some consistent areas where entries fell down:
Accuracy – There’s no room for inconsistency of wine presentation or spelling mistakes.
Design – Keep it clean and uncluttered. And please be wary of ‘quirky’ fonts that are impossible to read.
Navigation – It should be intuitive to follow. Test it out on non-experts rather than staff.
Selection of wines – Extra marks for avoiding on-trade stalwarts.
Tasting notes – Generally, unless you are a great writer, the shorter (and more practical) the better. Tell people what food it works with, not what it tastes like.
Personality – Put a bit of yourself in the list. Don’t regurgitate merchants’ notes.
Pricing – Simply too many examples of rip-off pricing. Especially for champagne.
The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury
With UK Sommelier of the Year Yohann Jousselin MS at the helm, you’d expect this list to be on the money – and you’d be right. There was no shortage of wine lists in this competition that had been put together with big budgets, but in terms of sheer verve and intelligence the Vineyard’s stood out.
It is, of course, enormous – over 120 pages – but it’s not simply stuffed with big names and myriad vintages. Its size might make you think of it as a ‘phone book’ list, but a careful look at the contents reveals it’s much, much more than that.
Poor years have been cut, and even smaller, less-heralded regions show evidence of careful selection – an essential characteristic, given that they use over 60 suppliers.
It’s justly renowned for a selection of (over 300!) Californian wines that is probably unequalled anywhere outside the States. But it’s the willingness to take great wine from everywhere, whether fashionable or not, that impressed the judges.
There is, of course, real sexiness to be had in the European wines: half a dozen vintages of Cheval Blanc back to 1955, for instance; nine vintages of Ornellaia and over a dozen of Sassicaia. We could go on… But it’s the even-handedness that struck our judges the most. As much care seems to have been taken over the Chilean, South African and Australian sections as the cru classé claret, while the ranges of German and Austrian wines are terrific.
‘We might be doffing our caps to overall selection, but it’s not just about scale,’ said Neville Blech. ‘The prices are good, too. It’s somebody making a very bold statement.’
Indeed. The selection of 60 ‘Everyday Drinking’ sub-£30 wines (helpfully split up by style) is proof of a genuine desire (rather than token effort) to cater for the budget-conscious.
‘With all the extra things that they do, they’re really championing wine,’ said Gearoid Devaney MS. ‘These are good vintages at very good prices.’
Champagne List of the Year
There were, no two ways about it, some beautiful lists were in the running for this prize. Elegant, classical, expensively printed – and stuffed full of great names, great vintages, verticals and rare oddities.
But there was also one distressingly common theme. The vast majority of these lists also had the kind of pricing that simply defied description. Do you seriously know anyone on this planet who would pay £115 for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut NV?
And it was in this area that Texture’s list really stood out. Yes, there are one or two pricey bottles (this is still Mayfair, after all), but generally the pricing is reasonable (Roederer at £75 or Taittinger for £85 is really not bad for a Michelin-starred eatery in this neck of the woods).
Not, of course, that its win was all about price. As well as all the grandes marques, there is a genuinely stimulating range of small-growers on display, too, plus a dozen rosés and half-a-dozen available in magnum.
There is plenty of information about how champagne is made, too, and while it might be nice to have the odd descriptor about the various houses, this is still a thoughtful and diverse champagne list that is trying to provide bottles for all tastes and all wallets, without ever resorting to box-ticking.
‘The breadth of the list is really the key here,’ commented Neil Bruce. ‘There were lots of interesting growers and the prices were not unreasonable.’
Best Value List of The Year
The Cherwell Boathouse, Oxford
A serial finalist in this competition, John Verdin’s riverside venue won Fine Wine List of the year in 2010, and was shortlisted again last year. Every year, the pricing of its wines has attracted envious comment and raised eyebrows from the judges – and its astonishing value for money is what the panel chose to reward this year.
There are many elements to admire in this selection. It manages to be wide ranging without ever being over-long or indulgent, and there are some superb wines available (many by the glass) for under £30 should you be on a budget, with our judges picking out Au Bon Climat at sub-£40 as particularly good value.
But the real benefit here is for the fine wine nut – perhaps the reason why so many of our judges have fallen in love with it down the years. There’s magnificent stuff between £50-£100 and, if you’re on a splurge, blue-chip fine wines on sale at barely above retail pricing. Finding 20-year-old Comtes Lafon Meursault at under £200 is simply astonishing, and Lynch Bages 1982 at £250 isn’t bad either.
‘There’s lots to choose from here, but it’s accessible, too,’ said Bruce.
‘You could stay here weeks and never get bored,’ added Devaney.
Country House Hotel List of the Year
Tan y Foel, Betws-y-Coed
There were a good number of entries in this category, from the West Country to the tip of Scotland, and from the large and grand to the bijou. Tan y Foel, from North Wales, with its 12-cover restaurant, is firmly in the latter camp.
Yet despite its size, the chef/proprietor Janet Pitman has put together a 65-bin wine list covering all the main styles, and offering something for both thrifty guests and out-of-towners on a splurge.
In the absence of a full-time trained sommelier, this is a wine list that has to work hard, and it does. Every wine has a detailed description of flavour and style, often with a suggested food match, and the helpful way in which the various wines are split up should be used as a template by more places like this: Crisp Fresh Fruity Whites, Smooth Dry Whites,
Full-Flavoured and Oaky, and Aromatic Spicy or Flowery Whites (reds are ‘Light and Fruity, Smooth and Medium-bodied and Rich and Full-bodied) is a punter-friendly way of making the wines accessible.
And the pricing, at twice cost plus VAT, is highly competitive. ‘The selection and the prices were very strong here,’ praised Blech.
Wine Bar List of the Year
Lazy Lounge, Leeds
Shortlisted for the third year on the trot, this wine bar, in what owner Tom Bailey describes as ‘a difficult location in Leeds city centre’, stepped up to the next level this year with a deserved award for Wine Bar List of the Year.
There’s no shortage of money washing around this part of the city (‘throw a cork and you’ll hit a banker or solicitor’ says Bailey wryly), but you wouldn’t know it by looking at this list. The pricing was exceptional – Veuve at £47 made it less than half the price of many rival lists – but the real eye-popper was Dom Pérignon 2002 at £99.95 – around a third of most competitors’ list prices.
Moreover, this value for money extends through the still wines, too, with the wine list starting at £12.50 a bottle – the kind of pricing not seen in most places for around 10 years.
This list’s success wasn’t purely about price, however. It was exceptionally easy to navigate, the sections were clearly laid out, the wines had helpful, but not over-long tasting notes, and it also managed to mix the unusual with the safe in a proportion that should keep both the accountants and all members of the public happy at the same time.
‘This list smacks of someone who has taken both time and care with the wine choices and the layout,’ commented Blech.
‘It’s excitingly good,’ added Bruce. ‘If I ever get to Leeds, I’m going there for sure.’
Best Pub List of the year
The Felin Fach Griffin, Brecon
The EatDrinkSleep team picked up the Pub List award last year for their Cornish hostelry, The Gurnard’s Head – and they’ve repeated the trick with their ‘inn with rooms’ near the Brecon Beacons.
The winning formula is simple: about 100 bins – 35 Old World whites, 35 Old World Reds, 10 New World Whites, 10 New World reds, 10 stickies, 10 fortifieds, and 16 wines available by the glass or carafe.
Bruce felt that the list could perhaps have benefited from ‘being 20% smaller’, but he also admitted that ‘there’s an awful lot here that’s excellent. It’s clear, easy to follow and there are some lovely, interesting wines.’
Probably because The Felin Fach Griffin uses seven small merchants, its list is free from ubiquitous on-trade ‘big names’, and the by-the-glass wines have short, helpful tasting notes. Would it have been more helpful to split the list up by style rather than region? Probably… but this was still a great example of the kind of professionalism, clarity and energy that all serious wine pubs should aspire to.
‘It’s not completely perfect, but I’d be delighted if I walked into a pub and found a list like that,’ said Devaney.
Small Restaurant List of the Year
There are any number of huge wine lists sent into the Imbibe Wine List of the Year, and very few efforts with less than 100 bins. Which, perhaps, tells you that it’s far harder to put together a good small wine list than it is to put together a phone book.
All of which makes the list at Trangallán a real stand-out effort. Xabier Alvarez’s ‘bistro/tapas/sherry’ bar in just-coming-onto-the-radar Newington Green, North London, is not short on personality or intent. In fact, it squeezes more of interest into under 50 bins than most lists do in four times that number.
First off, it’s big on sherry – 20 really good, interesting ones, including (astonishingly) all four of the González Byass Palmas range – the Cuatro Palmas at £61 the second most expensive wine on the entire list!
Secondly, it has only 23 still wines, yet still manages to avoid any form of box-ticking, with eight natural wines and a couple of sweeties, supporting a dozen reds and whites (plus five cavas). Over half of the wines (and all but two of the sherries) are available by the glass (mostly under £5) and the entire lot fits onto two easy-to-read A4 pages. Brilliant – an object lesson in clarity of vision and bravery of execution. The country needs more wine lists like this!
‘It’s one guy doing his own thing, and it’s a perfect fit for his market,’ said Devaney. ‘The sherry selection is really great, too. I’d love to hang out there.’
We introduced this award last year to give recognition to excellence of sourcing, rather than necessarily innovation or presentation. The shortlisted candidates here read like a ‘who’s who’ of the most comprehensive lists in the country, making this a hard category to judge.
Another list put together by a Master Sommelier – in this case, Christopher Delalonde MS – Boundary’s list was inches away from scooping the overall Wine List of the Year prize. Only a rather pedestrian presenation held it back, with the wines merely listed in country order and no personal touches at all.
This caveat notwithstanding, it was a lovely list – clean, elegant, accurate and beautifully presented. Moreover, while it had a lot of very, very good wines within its pages, it was still quite tight. There is never a hint of anything being listed for the sake of it; every wine, you feel, has had to fight for its place.
Pricing, moreover, isn’t bad: there’s a lot of good wine under £80 – perfect for its Shoreditch clientele – and the sub-£35 selection is a nice touch – albeit one that could, perhaps, have been at the front of the list, rather than the back.
‘This is a very tight selection,’ praised Devaney. ‘There are simply no duffers on that list at all.’
The Cross at Kingussie, Inverness
Shortlisted in year one, Small Restaurant List of the Year winner in 2011 and inches away from being a winner of the overall List of the Year in 2012, the list for this small Highland ‘restaurant with rooms’ has impressed every set of judges who has looked at it since this competition started.
Unusual, carefully-sourced wines, enthusiastic tasting notes, clear signposting, great by the glass selection, incredible mark-ups and helpful explanations make this a list for the uninitiated and wine nuts alike. So, it would have been a worthy winner.
Only one thing held it back: the fact that the ownership changed before our final round of judging.
And with the best will in the world, to award a main prize to the new owners, when they had done nothing to create the list, felt wrong. So reluctantly we had to settle for a special mention. But still, an object lesson in how to make a fabulous wine list.
‘For pricing, layout and content, it’s right there,’ said Bruce. ‘The enthusiasm that comes through is palpable. Here’s a man [previous owner, David Young]who loves his wine – and that comes across to his customers.’
As with last year, there were a few entries that the judges really liked, and which failed to pick up a gong by the narrowest of margins, but which the panel couldn’t bear to see go away empty-handed.
This was a classically-presented list, split up by country, but with clarity, accuracy and consistency. A good range of both Old and New World wines, and excellent, short, helpful tasting notes. Inches away from being a serious contender for the overall title, with only the slightly fierce pricing holding it back.
As you would imagine from one of London’s top Spanish restaurants, there’s a terrific selection of Spanish wines here, from all over the country, with good sherry selection and a dozen by the glass. Only the somewhat confusing navigation of the main menu held it back. Had they split the wines up by region or style, this could well have won.
The Lawn Bistro, Wimbledon
Clear, elegant, well-priced and easy to navigate, this list was popular with our panel. But while they liked the attempt to section off the wines, it was felt that, rather than do it geographically (‘Old World/New World/Off-the-Beaten-Track) it would have been more user-friendly to do it by broad style. Beautifully presented, though.