Wine List of the Year 2014

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Drinks: Wines
Other: Venues

They came in their hundreds, and one by one they fell until only a handful remained. Chris Losh looks at the select few who picked up the top awards in this year’s competition


Over the past five years, Imbibe’s Wine List of the Year, run in association with Louis Roederer Champagne, has grown into a monster. We had 300 entries this year, from the Isles of Scilly to Scotland, from art galleries to Chinese restaurants, and from great value local boozers to Michelin-starred bling.

We saw lists that were elegant and lists that were a bit crazy; lists that were ultra-traditional and lists that tried to push the boundaries. The judging process was thorough and gave a fascinating snapshot of UK wine list creation at the moment.

Hearteningly, this year more wine lists made a real effort to engage with their customers. I’d guess that maybe half of the entrants used tasting notes in some shape or form, and a lot more thought had gone into how the wines were presented, too.

Separating wines by style rather than country might be difficult, but for most venues it works. This year, a few venues even presented the same list in two or three different ways – by style, by variety and geographically. This, I would suggest, could be the next trend.

As usual, the judges were under no pressure to ‘fill’ award categories. Apart from an overall Wine List of the Year and a Champagne List of the Year, our panel simply selected the lists that they liked the most, for whatever reason, and made them winners in that category.

During the judging, we were able to draw meaningful conclusions about what the trade is doing well (or not) in its lists.
Accuracy – this comes up every year, as so many lists are stuffed full of errors: spelling mistakes, clumsy English,
poor grammar, inconsistencies.
Design – we saw improvements here this year. Generally lists were cleaner and less cluttered. Still, we’d recommend paying a designer for an afternoon to draw up a template for your list rather than doing it yourself. The best £200 you’ll ever spend.
Navigation – If in doubt, simpler is better. The willingness to move away from geographically separated lists is heartening – but good design is a must (see above).
Character – elements that give your list personality are a big bonus. But it’s important to get the balance right. Too much ‘white noise’ is distracting.
Education – too many lists think that adding in information about soil or fermentation techniques gives a list personality. It doesn’t.
Tasting notes – it’s great to see so many more lists using these. The best notes were a) short, b) personal – ie not written by your merchant, and c) practical – ie they helped with food-matching.


WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

Clos Maggiore, London and Rex Whistler Restaurant, London

This is only the second time in the five years of Wine List of the Year that we’ve ended up with two venues sharing the top prize. Our judges tied themselves in knots trying to decide which was best, and in the end decided that it was as impossible as trying to compare Beethoven with The Beatles. Put simply, they were doing totally different jobs, but each was doing it superbly well.

Clos Maggiore has been a serial finalist in this competition down the years, with its immense range of wines usually putting it in the running for the Sommelier’s Award. At almost 100 pages and (at a rough guess) around 2,500 bins, it is our largest ever winner of the main award by some distance.

And yet, for all the extraordinary range of wines on offer (including jaw-dropping verticals of some of the wine world’s biggest names), what our judges most liked about this list was the effort that had gone into making it accessible.

The first 10-and-a-half pages featured 44 interesting and imaginative wines by the glass (almost half of which were sweet or fortified); 90 whites and 90 reds separated by varietal as part of a really interesting and carefully chosen ‘sommelier’s selection’, and 100 or so champagnes.

Had we received nothing but this front section, it would have been a strong contender. As it was, backed up by a further 80 pages of cellar-bursting bottles, it was an irresistible package.

‘I’d say 80% of what you want is in the first 20% of pages,’ said Neil Bruce. ‘It’s a really good way of making a huge list navigable. Those first eight pages would be a great wine list on their own.’

The Rex Whistler Restaurant list was magnificent, too, but for different reasons. At 40 or so pages, it’s not exactly short, but there are rarely more than 10 wines on a page, and there’s plenty of white space to make it easy on the eye. ‘It’s a thing of beauty – it looks gorgeous,’ praised Ronan Sayburn MS of the hard-backed, cream-paged entrant before him.

All by-the-glass wines and beers have tasting notes, and though the rest of the list is traditionally split up by country or region, it’s exceptionally easy to follow. Plus, wine buyer Hamish Anderson’s introductions to the various sections are short and helpful, acting as easy-to-follow mission statements for the wines on offer.

This is a list that embraces history, both in the charming way that it breaks up sections with pages
from Rex Whistler lists of yesteryear and in the impressive number of older bottles that are clearly bought young and aged in situ. Whether Tour de By 2004 at £35 or Ramonet Batard-Montrachet 2004 at £175, there are some astonishing bargains to be found here – and it manages to be bang on for its traditional clientele without ever being too stuffy.

While there are far fewer New World wines (or, indeed, much from outside France) the examples have been chosen with real care. There are, for instance, more great Australian wines in the 16-bin selection here than in many ranges three times the size.

This is a list that has style and character and manages to be comprehensive without ever being self-indulgent.

Oh, and both our winners looked great – and, crucially, were unimpeachably accurate.


CHAMPAGNE LIST OF THE YEAR

Texture, London

There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule that any list with serious champagne pretensions must include ‘that’ quote from Lily Bollinger. You know, the ‘drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad’ line. It’s clever, to be sure, but after the 20th time of reading, our judges were getting just a little bit tired of seeing it.

Texture’s list opens (like so many others) with Madame B’s epigrammatic words, and then, just to remind you that this place takes its champagne seriously, it moves into a couple of pages that outline the history, production methods and vineyard classification systems in the region. It’s heavyweight reading and makes it obvious that this is a list for the serious champagne lover, rather than the dilettante.

Fortunately, the wines on offer back this up. It’s not just the number of bins available – though 130 was about as many as any list managed – it is the breadth of producers represented. While many lists majored on multiple offerings from grande marques, Texture had no more than six wines from any house.

Its 45 producers (listed alphabetically from Agrapart to Vouette et Sorbée) stretch across the entire champagne region, covering every style from extra-brut to off-dry, and oak-aged to blanc de blancs. Of course, there are prestige cuvées such as Grande Année and Cristal at big prices, but there are also an awful lot of fascinating wines around the £90 mark, which isn’t bad for a one-starred Michelin eatery.

‘This is a real champagne-lovers’ list,’ praised Bruce. ‘You’re bound to find something you like.’


GREAT VALUE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

10 Greek Street, London

Value for money has been increasingly hard to find in this competition over the last two years – but this entry stood out. No still wines at this Soho bistro were over £36, and the most expensive bottle – Nyetimber Rosé at £42 – was half the price of the same wine on other lists. There were, somehow, a red, white and rosé under £20, but it was in the £20-30 area that this list really scored well.

In less than 40 bins, it squeezes in more genuinely exciting, interesting wines than many lists 10 times its size – and the fact that it does them at astonishing prices simply seals the deal. Take a look at some of the whites: Egon Müller Riesling, Pieropan Soave, Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Tahbilk Marsanne, Mount Horrocks Semillon, Shaw + Smith Chardonnay, all between £24-33.

‘You would order stuff just to try it, and at these prices it wouldn’t matter,’ said Sayburn. ‘And even though the selection is small, because it’s changing all the time, even if you went there regularly you’d always find a lot to choose from.’

‘This list is an excellent example of “less is more”,’ added Bruce.


HOTEL WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

Allium Brasserie, The Abbey Hotel, Bath

Hotel lists are, arguably, the area where we see the most personality, with wine-loving owners keen to leave their mark, and competition was intense here this year.

In the end, our winner was the Allium Brasserie at The Abbey Hotel in Bath. The list at this small, elegant townhouse hotel was an object lesson in how to make wine accessible, without dumbing it down. Reds and whites are split up stylistically (Fruity and Light, Warm and Smooth, etc) and every wine has a tasting note. The notes, moreover, seem personal and enthusiastic, rather than written to order.

There are one or two expensive bottles for visitors on a splurge, but the vast majority of wines are under £40 and the value for money positively sings out. Trimbach Riesling for £34, anyone?

Size-wise this list manages to be comprehensive and compelling without ever being unwieldy, and there’s been a real effort to root out interesting producers (Loosen, Adi Badenhorst, Viña Leyda to name just a few).

Easy to navigate, clean on the eye, accurate and intuitive, it over-delivers for the venue in both selection and price.


WINE BAR LIST OF THE YEAR

Vinoteca, London

The UK wine bar scene is on a roll, and this was another hotly-contested category. But Vinoteca didn’t just have plenty of interesting wines – it made it easy for customers to get at them.

This was one of several lists that came in with a ‘split approach’. The wines were simply listed by country at the back (for punters who knew where they wanted to look) and, in more detail, by style in the main part of the list. The categories were innovative, meaningful and, crucially, had a helpful one-line explanation underneath. For example, ‘Pure, Textured, Nuanced’ reds were described as ‘wines with clean flavours but rooted with something more spicy or herbal – perfect food wines.’

Every single wine had a short tasting note and it was encouraging to see no ‘dull but worthy’ attempts at educating people in the intricacies of soil or terroir. This was a list that gave its customers everything they needed to make an informed decision but was never pompous or self-indulgent.

Plus, the 20 or so by-the-glass and dozen Staff Selection wines were unfailingly interesting. It takes guts to put on a red Vinho Verde, Agiorghitiko and Kiwi Syrah. It is this ability to match courage with personality, and no-nonsense breeziness with helpfulness that made Vinoteca’s list stand out.

‘It’s professionally done. You can tell the staff are knowledgeable,’ said Sayburn.


STEAKHOUSE & GRILL WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

The Big Easy Bar.BQ & Crabshack, London

In just six gate-fold pages, this wine list packs in a veritable cornucopia of interesting booze. From slushies and cocktails to oh-so-trendy Picklebacks and London craft ales, it’s bang on the money. And rather than going crazy on the beer listings, it keeps the numbers down and gives each ale a bit of love, telling punters how it’s made, what it tastes like and (crucially) what food they can try it with. More venues could learn from this ‘give ‘em less but give ‘em love’ approach.

The wines by the glass are split up by style. And again, credit needs to be given for the conciseness of selection. None of the style sections has more than four wines in, making life easy for the diner. And along with the (understandably) safe offerings, there are some braver choices, too, such as Godello and Furmint.

Backing up this easy, accessible list is the From the Cellar range – about 25 reds and 25 whites priced from £25 to over £100. And there’s some good stuff in there, too: Daumas Gassac, Peter Sisseck, Zind-Humbrecht, even Château Certan de May from the fabulous 1998 vintage at £86. For a steakhouse grill, it’s amazingly good.

‘It’s a really good drinks list,’ explained Bruce, ‘and the wine list is part of that. It’s a really friendly layout, and because there aren’t too many wines you actually have time to read it.’

‘For a relaxed bistro/diner, the way that Big Easy approaches the sale of beverages is really good,’ added Sayburn. ‘It seamlessly contains beer, wine and cocktails.’


SPANISH WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

Camino, London

Camino has been close to winning an award a few times in the past. This time its revamped version made it out of the pack to take the top spot.

Gone was the one-page ‘place-mat’ list, and in its place came a small, user-friendly A5 booklet. Everything bar the odd spirit and mixer is Spanish, and well over half of the wines are available in a multitude of serves (175ml, 250ml and 350ml carafe as well as by the bottle) – absolutely perfect for tapas.

For such informal dining, it is likely that customers will be choosing the wines themselves, without lengthy discussions with the waiting staff, and the helpful sub-division of the wines made our judges smile. Whites, for instance, are split up into Sunny, Juicy, Buxom and Luscious.

Because the number of wines is kept impressively in check (16 whites, 21 reds, two rosés and nine fizz/sherries), there is space to give information about each one. Regions and grape varieties are backed up by short tasting notes (rarely more than 10 words) for every wine, and scores from Jancis Robinson, El Guía Peñín, The Wine Advocate plus any gongs the wine has picked up in competitions all give confidence to potential purchasers.

There are, in short, lots of reasons to buy from a list that packs a lot of energy and personality into just 11 pages.

‘It’s really well presented,’ commented Imbibe’s Chris Losh, ‘and it has real charm. I loved the illustrations of the cocktails, too. That’s a great touch.’


SMALL WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms, Bristol

Proof, if any were needed, that larger isn’t always (or, indeed, isn’t often) better came in the shape of this marvellous example from Bell’s. A restaurant in an old pub, its stripped wooden flooring and homely atmosphere are perfectly captured in the list, which is printed on the kind of brown paper that is usually used for wrapping carrots in the market.

At just 50 wines (plus some beers, ciders and cocktails), it’s a wonderfully compact list, but manages to squeeze in a heartening number of left-field wines alongside the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

Txakoli, Bulgarian, Greek and Armenian amphora wines add a really quirky top-note to a range that, despite its small size, genuinely has something to please everyone.

Moreover, it’s dripping with personality. The ubiquitous tasting notes are personal, passionate and wryly humorous: providing an object lesson in bringing wines alive. ‘It’s very unintimidating,’ said an impressed Sayburn. ‘There are some quirky wines with great tasting notes that really speak to you. It’s a joy to read – and the sweet wines are great.’


ONE-PAGE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

The Vintry, London

This City wine bar was another entrant this year to take the twin-track approach, with a full list of 170 bins accompanied by a far smaller short list. While the former was, literally, just a list of wines, the latter was hugely impressive.

Changing every month, and seasonally appropriate, the 50 or so wines on its single A4 page mean that even regular customers don’t get bored of what’s on offer. It’s brilliantly clear, helpful (the wines are split up into short flavour-cue sections such as Fruity and Full, Spicy and Aromatic etc) and there is an awful lot to engage the customer.

There’s a selection of enticing pricier wines in the Enomatic machines (£10 for a 50ml sample of Leoville-Barton 1989 for instance) and ‘producer of the month’ feature wines, as well as details of upcoming wine dinners. All in all, this is a list that inspires and attracts. That it does all this in one easily-scannable page without ever seeming remotely cluttered is testament to somebody’s design and editing skills.

‘It feels like they are working really hard,’ said Bruce, ‘leaving no stone unturned to engage with their consumers. There are lots of reasons to keep checking it out rather than thinking “been there, done that”.’


COUNTRY INN WINE LIST OF THE YEAR

The Wheatsheaf Inn, Northleach, Gloucestershire

This is one of the examples of our judges loving a wine list, but not quite knowing what category to put it in. Is the Wheatsheaf a pub? A restaurant? A hotel? In the end, since this Cotswold venue seems to be a bit of all three, we settledfor country inn.

The list isn’t imaginative in execution – wines are traditionally presented by country. But it’s clean, elegant, accurate and has lots of really good producers. It also manages the tricky balancing act of having wines that will be attractive to visiting wealthy Londoners and plenty of cheaper bottles for less moneyed visitors. Prices range from £17 (Verdejo) to over £1,000 for Domaine dela Romanée-Conti Echézeaux 1998!

On another positive note, given that it’s put together by a young French MS student, Lionel Periner, there is plenty of interest from outside Europe (read: France) as well. ‘Just look at that Australian selection,’ cooed Sayburn. ‘They have maybe 20 producers, and every single one
is a top name across a wide range of grapes, regions and styles. They’ve chosen really well.’


HALL OF FAME 

The lists in these establishments are all examples of continued excellence that have picked up awards in this competition over two or more years. To recognise this – and also to prevent their consistent brilliance from ‘blocking’ other potential winners – we have allocated them a place in our Hall of Fame. Many congratulations to our proven star performers.

Cherwell Boathouse, Oxford
Hakkasan Group, London
EatDrinkSleep Group (The Gurnard’s Head, The Felin Fach Griffin), Cornwall and Wales
Trangallán, London



FREE FEEDBACK! We offer free feedback to all of our entrants. If you’d like to know what the judges thought about your list, contact Ed Warr on [email protected]

About Author

Since its launch in March 2007, Imbibe magazine has established itself as the UK’s leading publication for on-trade drinks professionals. Imbibe’s editorial coverage takes in all the main drinks categories, from wine to water, spirits to soft drinks.

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