With the short-list already drawn up, the judges gathered to pick the winners of the first Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year. Chris Losh sat in on the action with party-poppers and champagne at the ready
Earlier this year, Imbibe got together with our friends in Champagne to launch the Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year competition. We had entries from one end of the country to the other, from mom ‘n’ pop neighbourhood restaurants and pubs to some of the swankiest Michelin-starred eateries in the country, all hoping to be the best in their field.
We scooped all the lists together, then assembled two teams of brave sommeliers to wade through the mountain of entries (never judging their own restaurants) to come up with a shortlist of just 26 lists.
Then, a few weeks ago, a second panel of expert (neutral) judges – all with different, but wide-ranging experience of putting together wine lists – were locked in a room with the contenders. Five hours later they emerged tired but happy, with an empty bottle of champagne and the names of six winners.
There were no pre-set categories in this competition, so the judges were not under any pressure to ‘find’ winners for sections that weren’t particularly strong. They simply went through the lists in detail and selected the ones that they thought were the best.
What were they looking for? Essentially, the successful lists would score highly for the following:
Imagination – both in the wines selected and the way in which they were presented.
Drinkability – the vintages chosen needed to be drinking well now. No prizes for three-year-old first growth Pauillac.
Accuracy – both of spelling and facts. Also, consistency in the way the wines were laid out.
Suitability– the list and choice of wines needed to work for the cuisine, level of restaurant and type of clientele.
Markups – these weren’t a deciding factor, but the panel certainly preferred lists that were less greedy.
Innovation – a willingness to be different, even on classical lists, was always a hit.
Personality – lists with character were always preferred over those that merely listed the wines.
User-friendliness – perhaps the most important factor of all: was the list easy to use? Did it provide plenty of information? Was it ‘friendly’? If a customer didn’t want to ask the sommelier’s advice, did the list help out?
All of the short-listed contenders scored well in at least five or six of these categories. But at this final stage, our panel was ruthless. ‘Good’ was no longer good enough. They were looking for greatness; places where it was obvious that the owner or sommelier had thought long and hard about what they were doing and why; had sweated long into the night to create a thing of beauty. Places, if you like, that got eight out of eight.
The winners overleaf are many and varied in the way they have gone about their business. But they are united by one factor: they are all exceptional. Winners of the inaugural Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year, we salute you!
| THE JUDGES FOR THE FINAL
Christopher Delalonde, Sarment, (ex-The Square), Peter McCombie MW, consultant,
Robert Giorgione, consultant (ex-Orrery, La Tante Claire), Stuart Alder, The Radcliffe Arms
WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
Russell St, Stroud, Gloucestershire
Doubtless eyebrows will be shooting skywards across the country that the overall winner of this competition is a Chinese restaurant in Gloucestershire, rather than some big-city Michelin-starred establishment with first growth claret coming out of its ears, but suspend your incredulity and prepare to be amazed.
It’s true that apart from a £70 bottle of rosé champagne, the most expensive wine on the list is a £48 Burgundy, with the overwhelming majority of wines under the £30 mark. And yet the HK House list absolutely blew away every single judge who saw it.
For starters, it looked different – about 2/3 of a sheet of A4. It’s a miracle of condensation, with around 40 wines, every single one of which has obviously been chosen with extreme care to match the different food on offer, and it’s confident enough to thumb its nose at conventional wisdom.
There is not a hint of ‘box-ticking’ going on, with wines like a Santorini, a Picpoul de Pinet and a Furmint replacing the likes of Chablis, Sancerre and Pinot Grigio; Mexican Nebbiolo and Californian Sangiovese instead of pricey Italian alternatives, three Portuguese reds and no Rioja. Oh, and two sherries, neither of which is a manzanilla.
This is a list that isn’t just carefully thought out, it’s genuinely brave.
‘It’s well put together for quality and the price range is great,’ enthused Christopher Delalonde.
On its own, the main page listing the wines would probably have been enough for this list to have won something, but what pushed it to the top of the podium was the information about the wines. Describing them as ‘tasting notes’ is hopelessly inadequate. These are full-on stories. But they’re never dull.
It’s confident enough to thumb
its nose at conventional wisdom
Chee Hui doesn’t tell his customers about the soil or percentages of Bourboulenc, he tells you why he loves the wine so much, in prose that is honest yet poetic, intelligent but accessible, informed but personal and often hilariously funny. He loves his wine, and it shows. More to the point, it’s infectious. By the end, you love his wines, too!
These full-on wine descriptors are cleverly hidden behind the main page of listings, so customers don’t need to read them if they don’t want to, but frankly they’d be missing out if they didn’t. Our judges lapped them up, from start to finish, often laughing out loud and shaking their heads in wonderment.
‘It’s really entertaining,’ said Stuart Alder. ‘It makes you want to read it – and to drink the wines.’
Brilliantly put together, superbly priced, imaginative, accessible and better written than most wine books, the wine list from HK House oozes the personality of its owner. And Mr Chee deserves immense credit for the fact that, while he clearly loves his wine, he hasn’t allowed this to spill over into a self-indulgent creation of a gigantic, impractical list.
Rather, the HK House does the hardest thing of all: it creates a fabulous short list that has no gaps, no fat, plenty of personality and oodles of style. It is, in short, both a labour of love and a work of genius.
FINE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR
The Cherwell BoatHouse
50 Bardwell Rd, Oxford
There were, as you can imagine, some pretty serious contenders in here, many of which had extraordinary selections of claret and Burgundy – often at eye-watering prices. Many of the competitors also had attractive ‘extra’ information from the sommelier, too.
But while extra information usually picked up brownie points with the judges, it was the simplicity of The Cherwell Boat House list that appealed. It was very clearly (and stylishly) laid out, without looking like it had been overdesigned. It was exceptionally easy to navigate, and, with around 250 wines, it was pretty tight as well.
This was a list where the sommelier, Brice Guibert, has kept his enthusiasm and knowledge on a tight rein, to provide a tight focus of interesting producers and good vintages, with no superfluous egotism.
There are some high quality imaginative touches. German wines are listed in ascending order of sweetness; the ‘Shortlist’ of recommended house wines (all available by the glass) is thorough and wide-ranging, with helpful tasting notes; and the ‘From our Cellar’ section features a staggering selection of great, fully mature wines – often at jaw-dropping prices. Mouton 1982 for £550, Lafon 1988 Montrachet for £250… this list is stuffed with fabulous wines that are amazing value.
‘It’s a stunning list, and not just European,’ said Robert Giorgione. ‘It’s got wonderful wines at great value. Even if you were just an ordinary punter you would want to go there.’
The Cherwell Boathouse list is a celebration of great wine, clarity of thought and accessibility, rather than a pandering to big-spending for the sake of it, and this, in the end, was what edged out the competition.
PUB LIST OF THE YEAR
The One Bull Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
So many pub wine lists are ugly, feculent things, that when our judges found this one there was something of a collective Hallelujah Chorus. Back in the first round of judging, Christine Parkinson said that if she went into a pub and found a list like this, she’d be ‘overjoyed’, and these sentiments were echoed again this time around.
With just over 50 ‘standard’ wines on the list and ten ‘fine wines’, it’s impressively compact. But within that it offers excellent choice, with every single wine available in serves of 125ml, 175ml and 250ml as well as by the bottle.
The wines on the list are split up into six helpful stylistic groups, such as ‘dry, crisp, fresh’ or ‘full-flavoured, full, big’ which in itself is impressive, particularly for the pub’s likely customers. But in a real point-scoring extra, the pub also offers ‘tasting flights’ for each section. The idea here is that customers can try 50ml samples of all six of the ‘aromatic and herbaceous’ whites, for instance, for £9.
‘It’s encouraging you to taste all the wines – it works really well,’ said Stuart Alder.
Many fussier, fancier wine lists with serious pretensions could learn from the clear, easy-to-navigate way in which The One Bull lays out its compact, but eminently well-targeted selection.
ETHNIC RESTAURANT LIST OF THE YEAR
Charlotte St, London
One of the most interesting aspects of the first Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year was the way in which ethnic restaurants have risen to the challenge of putting together their wine lists, both in choosing the wines and in how they chose to present them. There were some truly innovative attempts – mostly, it has to be said, by upper-end London eateries.
Yet in the end, for the judges, one list stood out. At around 150 bins, Roka’s list was reasonably compact, but the judges were hugely impressed with three main elements. Firstly, the wines had obviously been chosen with a huge amount of care to suit the particular challenges of Japanese food, with a bias towards New World fruit, and Italian structure.
Secondly, the list was beautifully presented. Again, reds and whites were split up by style (‘fruity and velvety’, ‘rich and spicy’ etc) with 10 wines for each section, all clearly, consistently and accurately presented. And it wasn’t afraid to back harder-sell regions, with German wines often at the head of the various sections.
Thirdly, the list was incredibly easy to navigate, with the basic reds and whites neatly supported with further ‘extra’ sections, from half a dozen ‘sommelier suggestions’ (including tasting notes and food-matching hints) for the uninitiated, to a ‘wish list’ of fine and rare wines for customers with money to burn. This is not a list where you will waste time searching for the area you want.
‘Whether you are an amateur or an expert, it hits all the right buttons,’ said Christopher Delalonde.
It all made for a list that was confident, clear and incredibly easy to navigate. Clean, elegant and informal but still slick and cultured, it was more than a wine list, it was an expression of the restaurant’s ethos.
CHAMPAGNE LIST OF THE YEAR
The Bell at Skenfrith
There was some pretty stiff competition here. Several of the short-listed candidates had truly impressive selections of champagne, often with decent pricing, varieties of serve and focuses on one or two grand marques.
The Bell at Skenfrith, though, took things to a whole other level. Yes, there were the standard non-vintage fizzes, but beyond this the variation was amazing, with ten rosés, eight half-bottles,
five wines offered in magnum and three more in jeroboam.
Beyond this, there were over 20 ‘exceptional and vintage’ champagnes, from big names such as Krug and Cristal at around the £200 mark, down to small growers at around £30.
As if this wasn’t enough, there was a collection of 16 Gossets from NV up to 1995 Celebris in magnum, nine expressions of Taittinger, and probably the finest selection of Bollinger wines outside France, including 10 vintages of RD, back to 1975.
As well as interesting tasting notes (and often anecdotes) for each wine, there is a good deal of information about the various houses, production techniques, and the region itself. It’s a list that amounts to a lengthy love letter to the world’s most famous bubbles – right down to the amusing Scarfe-like illustrations that accompany every page.
It’s a list that takes its champagne seriously, but is never po-faced. And despite its length and the welter of information stacked in its pages, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate.
NEIGHBOURHOOD RESTAURANT LIST OF THE YEAR
Exmouth Market, London
The basic list for this unpretentious continental-style bistro was more or less an object lesson in clarity and brevity. In around 100 wines, Chris Atkins puts together an unashamedly Euro-centric selection that manages to cover all the main French, Spanish and Italian regions. It isn’t lazily stuffed with easy-to-sell regions or big-name wines, but neither is it self-consciously recondite.
It’s obvious that there’s been a lot of tasting and a some pretty rigorous selection to keep the numbers down. The pricing is sensible, 18 wines are available by the glass or carafe, and there’s even room for a few offerings from Austria and Germany. Despite only serving 80 covers on a Friday night, The Ambassador uses 10 suppliers, and this effort really shows – an object lesson to other restaurants, perhaps.
‘There’s an energy through this list,’ cooed Robert Giorgione. ‘And despite the lack of tasting notes, it’s not intimidating.’
All of this was loved by the panel, but perhaps the clincher was the ‘wines of the moment’ selection. This changes ‘at least once a month’ according to the restaurant, and allows them to shine a light onto less-frequented areas of the list.
The ‘spring’ list sent in at the start of this competition, for instance, focused on aromatic whites, bravely picking out a Grüner and a Riesling from Austria, a German Riesling Spatlese, an Alsace Gewürz and Grosset’s Polish Hill Riesling. The accompanying notes were concise, enthusiastic,
informative and, crucially, selected food-matches.
‘The strong European bias reflects what they do,’ said Peter McCombie MW. ‘The wines are individual but not obscure, and the pricing suits every pocket, from £17 to over £100.’