Top wine lists from around the country, and the sommeliers behind them, were recognised last night at Playboy Club London in the 2013 Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year awards.
With 250 entrants narrowed down to less than 40, our judges gathered to select the winners of this year’s competition. Chris Losh reports on the panel’s findings – and profiles this year’s winning lists
Now in its fourth year, the Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year has grown to be a heavyweight competition. This year saw 250 wine lists come in from all over the country, and all styles of venue, and as I sat in on the first round of judging, watching 20 or so of the biggest names in the UK on-trade assessing piles of hopefuls, it was hard not to feel a bit chuffed!
The whole point of the Wine List of the Year is to raise the bar: to reward the people who are doing great stuff, but also to provide feedback for those who entered but were not successful. This year, we had dozens taking us up on the offer of ‘free analysis’ and here’s hoping they come back better and stronger for it next year.
One thing that’s become obvious as the competition has grown is that it’s increasingly difficult to do well in it. There were numerous examples this year of lists that almost won a couple of years back failing to make the shortlist. Lists must continue to develop and improve.
Annoyingly, since I’m a northerner, this lack of progress was particularly evident in the lists from outside the south-east. Too many places are doing the same old stuff. The lists from London were way ahead in terms of ideas and professionalism. Never have we had a shortlist so dominated by entries from the capital.
In terms of final awards, as usual we were under no pressure to ‘fill’ awards categories with entries. Apart from an overall Wine List of the Year and a Champagne List of the Year, this final stage of judging is completely open. Our judges rewarded lists they liked and made the categories fit the winners – the best way of rewarding quality. There was no Pub Wine List of the Year winner this year – none of the submissions quite hit the mark.
Like last year, there are a few key points to make:
Accuracy – a big issue, this. Way too many lists with spelling mistakes, inconsistencies of presentation and accents scattered around at random.
Design – cleaner is better. We saw good progress here this year, with fewer overwritten lists.
Navigation – needs to be intuitive and simple. Show it to non-wine-enthusiast friends and see how they get on.
Innovation – we saw some real imagination this year. Daring to be different can pay off if you get it right.
Practicality – ask yourself, ‘does what I’m doing help the customer select wine to go with their food?’
Tasting notes – the shorter the better. We saw less pointless verbosity this year. Huzzah!
Personality – lists with a bit of character scored better than those that were apparently put together by a robot.
NEVILLE BLECH, author of The Top 100 UK Restaurant Wine Lists
‘I was disappointed by the overall lack of German Rieslings. Some lists have one or two. A lot have none. It’s a grave omission of one of the world’s best wines.’
NEIL BRUCE, Studio Alto
‘Lists that stand out are the minority that are written for normal people (ie consumers), as opposed to the majority penned by the wine industry for other people in the industry.’
CHRIS LOSH, Editor, Imbibe
‘For me, the best lists were those that were trying to really engage with the customer, to give them information that was useful and present it in a way that was easy to use.’
WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
THE CHERWELL BOATHOUSE, OXFORD
It’s hard to know what to say about this venue that hasn’t already been said before. It is, after all, a serial finalist in this competition, and has won Fine Wine List of the Year and Best Value List of the Year in the past few years.
The most eye-catching element, for sure, is the pricing. When a tough judge like Isa Bal MS of The Fat Duck gives you 10/10 for value for money (as he did in the first round of judging) you know that this is a place where your hard-earned goes a long way.
The temptation, of course, is to home in on the fine wines, with A-list producers and great vintages at the kind of prices you can only hit if you buy en primeur and have a democratic approach to margins. Mouton 1995 for £350, Ridge Monte Bello 1997 for £160, Comtes Lafon Meursault Perrieres 1989 for £180; this is a sommelier’s wet dream.
And yet, for our final-round judges it was the consistency of this value that pushed it to the front of the pack, with terrifically-priced wines all the way through, from bottles of Louis Roederer Brut Premier at a touch over £60 to a Felines Jourdan Picpoul at £19 and Au Bon Climat’s Santa Maria Pinot for £40. Whether you are on a splurge or on a budget, this is a list that spoils you for choice.
The by-the-glass and half-bottle selections are exemplary, it’s clean, simple to use, beautifully presented and the innovative touches are helpful and encouraging. Offering a flight of three different 35cl sweet wines for £8 was a nice touch, as was listing the fine selection of German Rieslings in ascending order of sweetness.
It’s a list that, quite simply, has no faults. It’s exciting, but not overly long; has personality but is never
self-indulgent, and caters for the wine fan and the novice alike.
‘There’s a fantastic consistency here,’ said Studio Alto’s Neil Bruce. ‘It’s unremittingly excellent.’
Truly, a worthy winner.
CHAMPAGNE LIST OF THE YEAR
There’s always strong competition for the Champagne List of the Year gong, and for the first time, our judges were unable to find one stand-out winner in this category, with two venues jointly winning the title.
If you think that sounds like a cop-out, think again. The two venues were so different – and their approaches to champagne so diametrically opposed – that it was a case of apples and oranges.
L’Etranger had what you could call a classical champagne list. Made up mostly of grandes marques, it was arranged by label, with staggering selections of styles and formats from a range of great names: Ruinart, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Roederer, Taitt, Pol, Salon, Billecart… it’s a (wealthy) fizz-lover’s paradise. DP is arguably the star attraction at this Franco/Japanese eatery, with 14 vintages and five œnothèques, but nine vintages of Salon, six of Cristal and five of Cristal rosé run it close.
As you might expect from a champagne bar that also sells hot dogs, Bubbledogs is rather different. There are no big names, and the layout is far from traditional. Rather than separating the offerings by producer or by type of champagne, the wines are, instead, split up by broad style: ‘So fresh and so clean, clean’, ‘Touch of spice’, ‘Fresh fruit bowl’ and ‘Toasty and nutty delights’, for instance.
The 14 sections (including one dedicated to by-the-glass and another to magnums) rarely contain more than three or four wines, and, combined with a super-clear layout and impressive consistency
and accuracy, it’s very easy to follow – and a good starting point for the largely non-expert clientele.
‘I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few big names in there,’ said Neville Blech, author of The Top 100 UK Restaurant Wine Lists.
‘But it’s certainly very brave – the whole ethos is very different.’
COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
This 14-room hotel (and 30-seater restaurant) is a fantastic example of how to help non-expert guests to make an informed wine selection.
Once out of the ‘sparkling’ section, wines are divvied up by food-match group: fish, meat, vegetarian, cheese and puddings, with each section sub-divided by country and/or region.
This food-matching is, of course, fairly broad-brush, but as Bruce pointed out, ‘I’d rather have it too simple than too complex – or not there at all.’
The matching is not the only nice touch, with each wine getting a tasting note, and a score out of five to denote sweetness/dryness (whites) or weight (reds). ‘It’s obvious that they’ve started with the food and worked backwards to choosing the wine, rather than the other way around,’ commented Imbibe editor Chris Losh. ‘It’s something that more restaurants could consider trying.’
All in all, at less than 100 bins, this list is compact, clear and superbly helpful with the only (highly unusual) criticism that it wouldn’t have hurt to put on three or four top-end wines to add a bit of star quality. ‘But that’s easily fixed,’ said Blech.
NEIGHBOURHOOD RESTAURANT WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
SAM’S BRASSERIE, LONDON
The one thing you want from a neighbourhood restaurant is an ease of manner – and this wine list is a textbook study in informality and helpfulness. With 30 wines by the glass (many of them by the carafe) it encourages trial. And the pricing was exemplary. There were few entries to this year’s competition that managed to get as many wines sub-£25.
The mix of ‘safe’ and ‘interesting’ is bang on for its customer base, and the ‘feature’ pages of ‘Sam’s wines of the month’ and ‘Sam’s personal recommendations’ added some nice depth and heartfelt enthusiasm to proceedings. The right length, the right prices, and the right mix of chat and information.
GROUP WINE LISTS OF THE YEAR
HAKKASAN GROUP (HAKKASAN, HAKKASAN MAYFAIR, HKK), LONDON
Hakkasan has been a strong performer in this competition since it started, and three of the group’s restaurants made it onto the shortlist this year. The trouble for our judges this year was that they
are all but impossible to separate.
Yes, there are different wines on each list – a bit more claret here, a focus on SuperTuscans or top-end Australians there – and they are clearly brilliantly selected, but it would have been unfair to put one over the other when there wasn’t, as one judge put it, ‘a cigarette paper between them’.
What all three lists had in common was the same innovative overall structure, with wines separated by quirky categories, like ‘New classics: genius without a château’, or ‘Blends: the art of the winemaker’. Aimed at encouraging customers to rethink their prejudices and then engage with the sommelier team rather than just looking for the second-cheapest Rioja, it’s a technique that fits with the modern feel of the restaurants.
Pricing is a touch toppy, but not excessively so, and the range of wines is superlative – with a heartening willingness to go way off the beaten track to list Sylvaner and Juhfark alongside a healthy selection of Burgundy.
Stimulating and unusual but still achieving all the basics of accuracy and consistency, the Hakkasan
wine lists are an object lesson in professionalism and imagination.
‘I love the way it combines elegance and simplicity with innovation and accuracy,’ said Losh. ‘And there’s not a dud wine on any of the lists.’
ITALIAN WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
There’s never a shortage of big Italian-focused wine lists in WLOTY, and this year was no exception, with any number of huge lists showing off their credentials with vast collections of blingy Brunellos, Barolos and SuperTuscans.
The Trullo list, however, is not like this. At only 12 pages of wines, it is a model of restraint, yet still manages to cover every region and style, with no wines (bar a couple of English fizzes) from outside Italy.
As much as the thoughtfully chosen wines, it is the way in which they are presented that won over the judges. Separating them by region may not be ground-breaking, but the attractive, colour, hand-drawn maps at the start of each section certainly is.
And the information about each wine is exemplary, with details on the region, the grape, the abv and the wine’s weight (on a scale of one to five) as well as personable tasting notes, running from first wine (La Battistina NV fizz) to last (Vino Aromatizzato Visciole). For a neighbourhood Italian restaurant with no specialist sommeliers, it’s absolutely spot on.
‘There’s everything you need to make an informed decision very quickly,’ said Bruce. ‘And a lot of thought has gone into that style and design. It’s what more people should be aspiring to do.’
SPANISH WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
Trangallán picked up a Short List of the Year award last year, and it was back again in 2013, narrowly edging out a couple of worthy competitors to take the Spanish award. Trangallán’s is not by any stretch the biggest or most comprehensive selection of Spanish wines on the planet, but it has real personality and focus, happy to eschew ‘safe’ options and put its money on quirkier options.
The list of just 40 or so table wines has only five Riojas, one (red) Vinho Verde and a whole string of wines that all but serious Iberophiles would struggle to pronounce, let alone find on a map. Yet this is not owner Xabier Álvarez being intentionally obtuse. He’s quite happy to list a few wines from Italy and France as well, as the mood takes him.
Star element of the list is the sherry section. Pointedly labelled ‘Proper sherries’, this 28-bin list is a big statement of real enthusiasm, and the well-priced selection is beautifully selected. Clear in its vision,
simple in its execution and human in tone and scale, this is a list that wears its heart on its sleeve and makes the effort to give the customer enough information to encourage them to fall in love with
the Trangallán dream.
PUBLIC ATTRACTION WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
TATE MODERN, LONDON
This is the first time we’ve ever given an award in the ‘Public Attraction’ field, and it’s well deserved. Our judges loved the Tate Modern’s list, which they felt was fabulously easy to navigate, beautifully laid out and absolutely stuffed with interesting vinous nuggets.
Rather than listed by country, the wines are split up by weight. So whites are over three pages – one each for ‘Richer’, ‘Aromatic’ and ‘Light & fresh’, while reds are divided into ‘Lighter’, ‘Medium-bodied’ and ‘Full-bodied’. Tellingly, no section has more than eight wines in it.
Because it’s predominantly a lunchtime venue, a lot is available by the glass (or 375ml carafe) while the beer selection taps into a trend that many more venues ought to be giving serious thought to.
At 14 pages this might look like a mid-sized list rather than a small one, but in fact it’s a miracle of condensation. With less than 50 wines and 25 beers/ciders spread languidly over its easy to follow pages, it gives wine buyer Hamish Anderson the opportunity to write a helpful tasting note for every listing.
‘This is absolutely spot on for who it’s aimed at,’ praised Blech. ‘It’s another good reason for visiting the Tate!’
‘The wine offering in public spaces has improved over the last few years,’ added Bruce. ‘And these guys have been right in the vanguard of the movement.’
LARGE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
NEWMAN STREET TAVERN, LONDON
This is a classic example of the difficulty of the way in which we run the Wine List of the Year, namely allowing our judges to choose their favourite lists as winners, and then deciding on the category. Everyone was agreed that the Newman Street Tavern should win an award, but what? It’s not a pub, or a neighbourhood restaurant. It doesn’t offer particularly great value for money, and nor does it specialise in any one country. So in the end we settled on the Large Wine List of the Year award, a descriptor which, in truth, only tells part of the story.
Because although this is a big list – over 300 bins – it’s not especially unwieldy. ‘In fact,’ said Bruce, ‘you could make a case for it winning the Sommelier’s Award. It’s clearly been beautifully selected, and it doesn’t read like a tome, which a lot of the other big lists do.’
Key to this, perhaps, is the interesting way in which the wines have been presented, which is almost Hakkasan-like in its unusualness. Whites, for instance, are split into ‘Thirst’, ‘Sea & ocean’, ‘Mountains & volcanoes’, ‘Skin & clay’, ‘Aromatics’, ‘Stone’, and ‘Vintage’, as well as ‘Delicious Burgundy’, ‘A world tour of Chardonnay’, ‘A tale of two rivers – Loire and Rhône’ and ‘Garrigue’.
This is a tough trick to pull off without losing the customer, but Nigel Sutcliffe has done an admirable job, taking advantage of the non-traditional categories to ferret out some truly inspiring wines.
‘There’s a lot of really good stuff in there,’ praised Blech. ‘It’s been put together by someone who knows a lot about wine from all over the world, and there’s a lot of good wine between £20 and £40.’
INNOVATIVE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
Any sommelier will tell you that it’s far harder to put together a small list than a big one, which makes this offering from the contemporary Korean restaurant Bibigo a work of near-genius.
At less than 40 bins, ex-Zuma sommelier Raphael Thierry’s range has not an ounce of fat in it, yet still manages to be both accessible (Kiwi Sauvignon, Picpoul, Chianti, Claret) and quirky, with a Greek white, a Kent Pinot fizz and a Bulgarian Syrah some of the more unusual listings.
And yet arguably the most impressive element here is the way in which Thierry has deconstructed the wine list, and re-made it to suit the restaurant’s food and clientele. The first half-dozen whites, for instance, are gathered under a heading which says ‘Think Korean Palate’ with the explanation ‘LIGHT, CRISP and mineral wines, that will amplify our spicy dishes’. The next set sit under a heading that says, ‘Think Western Palate: AROMATIC or RICH wines that will soften and interact with our spices.’
This, frankly, is genius, managing to be both helpful and informative without being either nerdy or patronising. ‘You’re put at ease by it,’ said Blech. ‘It’s not pretentious at all.’
‘It’s probably the most one-off helpful wine list I’ve seen since we started this competition,’ added Losh. ‘Everyone in the on-trade should get a copy of this and look at what they’ve done here. As a punter, I can tell you that it’s bang on.’
We introduced this award two years ago to give recognition to excellence of sourcing rather than necessarily to presentation or innovation. To lists, if you like, where it was all about the wine…
This year there was an astonishing selection of shortlisted candidates, and in the end our judges went
(as with Champagne List of the Year) for a joint award.
MARCUS WAREING AT THE BERKELEY, LONDON
A classic selection but an exceptionally good one, sommelier Michael Deschamps has managed to put together an awesome range of wines without succumbing to the temptation simply to buy anything that looks expensive. As well as some terrific wines from classic French regions, there are flashes of inspiration from Spain and California as well that give it real personality, as well as bling.
MASH LONDON, LONDON
This enormous West End steak restaurant is understandably bigger on reds (about 75% of the list) than it is on whites, so it’s perhaps more a ‘modern’ than a ‘classic’ wine list. But the selection is, nonetheless, exceptional – and well-suited to the 300 guests who pack in at the weekends.
There’s a fair bit of top-end French stuff, as you’d expect. But what made this list stand out is the range of Californian wines. With verticals of the likes of Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Ridge and Opus One, and plenty of large-format bottles to back them up, it’s not, perhaps, the place to go for a bargain – but if it’s rarity that you want it can hardly be bettered.
All of the shortlisted wine lists for 2013 will be promoted in the restaurant review pages of SquareMeal.co.uk
Many thanks to Playboy Club London for hosting the awards ceremony.